Today marks two years since George Floyd was murdered by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. His death spurred a global movement for racial justice and intensified the push for police accountability and abolition. For more, we go to Minneapolis to speak with Robin Wonsley Worlobah, longtime activist who was in the streets protesting the police killing of George Floyd and has since been elected as Minneapolis’s first Black democratic socialist city councilmember. She was part of a coalition successfully blocking the relocation of the 3rd Precinct police station, where Chauvin was based — which still sits vacant today.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
Two years ago today, George Floyd was murdered by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. His death spurred a global movement for racial justice and intensified the push for police accountability and abolition.
For more, we go to Minneapolis to speak with Robin Wonsley, longtime Minneapolis activist who was in the streets protesting the murder of Floyd and has since been elected as Minneapolis’s first Black democratic socialist city councilmember. She was part of a coalition successfully blocking the relocation of the 3rd Precinct police station, where Chauvin was based, which still sits vacant today. Oh, and much more.
We welcome you to Democracy Now! I mean, you have made this very interesting — I don’t know if it is a transition, because you remain an activist on the City Council, but from the streets to elected office. First, if you could start off by talking about the significance of today? Tell us where you were two years ago — it was actually Memorial Day — and when you heard about what happened to Perry, to George Floyd.
ROBIN WONSLEY WORLOBAH: I was like many — you know, many residents at the time. I was, I believe, running errands when I first heard word of it, and then I had, you know, community members share the historic footage of Floyd be pinned against the ground, with Derek Chauvin, officer Derek Chauvin’s knee, you know, forcefully placed upon Floyd’s neck. That image, in itself, forced me to pull over, and I just remember being in a deep paralysis and shaking and crying.
And, you know, as you noted in my intro, I’ve been a organizer in Minneapolis. And unfortunately, a lot of my organizing work has revolved around police-related murders of Black people, from Jamar Clark to Philando Castile. And, you know, I was there with Philando Castile watching as St. Anthony and their officers washed the blood off the sidewalk, or the street, and now here I am watching George Floyd be killed, like millions of others around the world, and, of course, just was forced into a pause of, you know, all the things that have transpired that led to that moment, the failure of our leadership to really address the deep inequities that have been documented, here in Minneapolis specifically, for a number of years, especially around policing, and how, if we had better leadership, willing to exercise even the bare minimum of political will and political courage, especially with our police federation, with our officers, how we would not have had to endure the collective trauma of watching George Floyd be lynched, and then, basically, afterwards seeing our city burn nearly down because of this collective oppression. You know, Martin Luther King says, you know, the riots are the sounds of the oppressed.
You know, I just think there was so much that could have happened, that activists and residents had been organizing around clear demands, public safety demands, for a number of years that could have prevented that. And just the unknown of what was actually going to come in the wake of everything that transpired here in Minneapolis after George Floyd, and now being in this position of power and saying, two years later, we have not made much progress. Actually, if there was a way to go backwards, we’ve done it.
And that’s disheartening to say in this current moment where we’re honoring such a historic moment, in not only U.S. history but global history. As you noted, his murder sparked a national movement, one of the largest civil rights movements in U.S. history, and that will go on to prompt actions and protest in more than 50 countries around the world. And to be able to sit here as an elected official who ran, you know, in the wake of organizing for justice for George Floyd, being tear-gassed by our police in the midst of all that, and now have to see our leadership continue to fail to rise to the occasion to prevent another Black person from being murdered, another working-class person from being murdered — we have failed to rise to that occasion, even two years later, and it just makes you think: What does it take to get justice for Black lives at this point?
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I wanted to ask you — in the wake of those protests after George Floyd’s murder, there did seem to be some attempts by political leaders, not only in Minneapolis but around the country, to institute some changes. There was a reduction of the police department budget initially in Minneapolis. But as often happens with these protests, the system figures out a way to basically let the movement spend its energy and then seizes back its power. I’m wondering how that happened, specifically in Minneapolis. How did the movement backwards occur?
ROBIN WONSLEY WORLOBAH: I think, for one, I do want to note, there was never a reduction in police funding. There has been, you know, years of efforts from residents to say, “Let’s transition dollars from MPD into other, you know, holistic social services that actually deals with the root causes of crime.” And, you know, there have been very small investments into that work. But as we stand right now, of today, two years later, the police budget for the Minneapolis Police Department still stands close to $200 million.
And as you mentioned, the movement backwards, we really saw — in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the uprising, we saw this, you know, broad movement rallied around the demand to defund the police. You know, there was efforts by that coalition of organizations, Black-led organizations, to try to even put something on the ballot that would have allowed us to basically dismantle the police department as it currently stands and create a new Department of Public Safety, that would have, you know, not replicated many of the racist and violent components of policing as it currently stands.
And we had an unelected body, the Charter Commission. And we’ve seen this play out throughout all levels of government. You know, when we tried to pass 15 federally, we had a parliamentarian commission come in and say no. So we always have these unelected bodies that are able to assert themselves and block the changes that working-class people are demanding. We had that with the Charter Commission. They delayed that, and then that forced our movements to have to look into putting a charter amendment forward for the following year, which was our election year.
And what we saw was the status quo of Minneapolis fight tooth and nail to keep any transformative change around public safety from coming into fruition. And when I say “fight tooth and nail,” some of the things that they did was build a broad coalition of some of our most big business — powerful big business actors. We’re talking about the Chambers of Commerce, the downtown council. They formed these PACs where they pulled millions of dollars together to do, you know, repeated media blitzes, saying that, you know, this demand will get rid of police, it will defund the police. And also, we were seeing somewhat of a rise in community violence at the time, and they were leveraging, you know, the justifiable pain and trauma that many of our working-class Black residents were experiencing, you know, as it related to that community violence, and saying, “Look, you can’t have transformative change and be able to keep, like, your community safe. So you have to pick. So, either you’re going to keep the cops, to keep the bullets from flying, from keeping babies from dying, or you’re going to have like a new model of public safety. And that’s too risky. So let’s just keep the cops as they are.”
So, we had this whole powerful coalition. That was tied into an election year. So you had a number of candidates who were tying themselves to this anti-public safety amendment, you know, pro-policing agenda. Our current mayor was also at the helm of a lot of that and basically saying, “We don’t need to make any major changes. All we need to do is trust that our current police chief” — at that time, a well-respected Black man, you know, from St. Paul and Minneapolis. “We just need to trust him to carry out the reforms necessary to rein in the racist and terrorizing dynamics of MPD that led to George Floyd’s murder. Let’s just trust him to do that. Don’t trust these crazy activists.” And they were able to run a successful multimillion-dollar campaign, a fear campaign, to squash any type of efforts to make meaningful change around public safety.
But what I want to know is, while they were successful on November 2nd in defeating the public safety amendment and getting a pro-police majority on City Council, what has happened since is that whole thing has fallen apart. Their whole fear campaign, fear-based campaign promises have fallen apart. A month after we got elected, Chief Arradondo, the chief who was going to save the entire police department, retired. In February, Minneapolis residents watched another police killing of a young man by the name of Amir Locke while he was sleeping in an apartment at 6:30 a.m. Mind you, the officers involved in shooting that young man while he was sleeping have not been charged, and charges will not be brought forward to those officers, and they will likely come back on the force to police our communities.
We also have had a release of a damning human rights report from our State Department, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, which has basically said — you know, confirmed Minneapolis Police Department is entrenched in racist, misogynistic and violent practices, that MPD leadership, as well as city leadership — we’re talking about our current mayor, who’s been there for five years, many of my fellow councilmembers, who have been there for a number of years. This report names that all of those leaders were aware of these human right violations that were taking place in our department, and did nothing. So, we’ve had that report come out.
And we’ve had our current mayor even resist talks — has made public declarations to walk away from all conversations with our state Human Rights Department around entering into a consent decree. We still have a mayor that is championing resistance to any type of reform. We’ve passed a police contract that has further emboldened our officers, given them incentives, monetary incentives, with no level of accountability in which they are being forced to be beholden to by our current leadership.
So, we’ve seen, again, just regression and regression, after communities have continued to rise up and say we must do better. We need a new Department of Public Safety. We need to address the fact that Mayor Frey and many of our council leadership, you have not — and MPD leadership — you have not enacted any meaningful and effective oversight over one of the most dysfunctional, racist and violent policing departments in the country right now. And you, in turn, to those residents are still resisting every effort from councilmembers like myself who ran on a platform for public safety beyond policing. You’re resisting any efforts from community members, even state departments, to create any meaningful reforms. So, we’re just seeing a full doubling down on basically protecting MPD policing as it currently stands. And sadly enough, we have a mayor and MPD leadership that’s willing to double down at the expense of more Black lives, at the expense of working-class people. So, and it shows. Status quo, one hell of a drug.
AMY GOODMAN: Robin, I wanted to turn to an activist I’m sure you know, Kandace Montgomery, one of the co-executive directors of Black Visions in Minneapolis, talking this week with us about the two years since the murder of George Floyd. She echoed many of your points.
KANDACE MONTGOMERY: I think it’s important for people to know that the grassroots fight continues, that many of our politicians, instead of hearing the fact that 62,000 Minneapolites, almost 50% of the city, voted for transformation when it comes to public safety, we are still having to push our politicians, folks like our mayor and others, to really put that into action. And so, the grassroots efforts on the ground have really been about bringing our people together, so slowing down to make sure people understand this topic and are able to actually articulate a much more clear vision of what they want safety to look like, and be able to inoculate people against conservative rhetoric and toward a true vision that feels expansive.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Kandace Montgomery. I wanted to ask you, from the grassroots on the ground in Minneapolis to what’s expected to happen today in Washington, D.C., with George Floyd’s family and President Biden, who’s expected to announce — I believe, expected to announce an executive order aimed at overhauling policing, on this second anniversary of Floyd’s murder. He will direct federal law enforcement agencies to revise their use-of-force policies and to restrict tactics like chokeholds and no-knock warrants, while using grant incentives to encourage state and local agencies to adopt the same standards. And you have the attorney general apparently going to enforce this duty to intervene, the idea that officers cannot just stand by if another officer is committing a crime — which goes to the other three officers in this case, as you had bystanders, so incredibly conscientious, begging, pleading, demanding that Derek Chauvin get off the back of George Floyd. You had these three other officers, and just this past week one of those officers pled guilty, Thomas Lane, to, I think it was, second-degree manslaughter for his role in the murder of George Floyd. There’s a lot there to unpack.
ROBIN WONSLEY WORLOBAH: Yeah. I want to acknowledge, you know, the reason why, at even the national level, we’re still having to take serious this conversation around policing, and even still this conversation around reforms, which I want to highlight — if there was ever a city that could further confirm the failures of the police reform movement, it’s Minneapolis. But I do want to acknowledge it’s because of the continuous movements on the ground across all of our respective cities across the U.S. that we’re still having this conversation, where Biden feels the pressure to move forward with some, you know, initiatives, that’s still geared in reforms. But I also want to acknowledge, you know, the other side of that. Just several weeks ago, I mean, in his, you know, state of address, he noted that we should be showing up even more for police, we need to be funding them. So, you can’t at the same time say that you want to hold the utmost accountability of law enforcement, that all across the country — Minneapolis is not isolated — we’ve had numerous cases where police departments across the country have been well documented in initiating in violent and racist practices that have truly brought so much terror and trauma to working-class communities, especially Black and Brown communities.
And we’ve seen, especially governments, Democratic governments — I can only speak to that, because that’s all that I’ve lived under, both nationally and, you know, at the most local level. We’ve seen liberal Democratic leadership continue to meet these moments of, you know, violence at the hands of their police departments with more resources, with more money, with more promises of trainings and policy changes. And again, Minneapolis has proven to be, I think, a model of where those fall short. Amir Locke was killed after our Democratic mayor promised, on an election cycle, that he had in fact banned no-knock warrants. And in light of Amir Locke dying — I’m sorry, being killed, we will come to learn that, actually, our police department had exercised no-knock warrants, you know, dozens of times prior to Amir being shot and killed.
So, we’ve also seen, you know, there’s been exposés that our police department, even though the National Medical Association has basically said no police department that actually want to have some integrity in their profession should ever practice or believe in the philosophy of excited delirium — we now know, you know, just as of early this year, that our own police department have continued to practice that same thing, that even national medical experts are, like, saying this is not a real thing. This is used to basically unjustly subdue people.
So, I understand, you know, the efforts, but if they’re coupled with still investing in the same infrastructure that protects and basically codify these racist practices, these violent practices that are inherently embedded within the fabric of policing and within the U.S. context, I don’t think we will ever see any meaningful outcomes. We won’t see less racist outcomes. We won’t see less violent outcomes exhibited from our police departments. And Minneapolis, I think, is a case example of that even in this moment, where we had a global reckoning around policing specifically, and to still see the solution be from our mayor to protect the police at all costs, to not provide any metrics of real accountability, to not enforce that accountability. So, I’m very skeptical about this enforcement aspect, because I’ve seen it here in Minneapolis. There has been no enforcement of accountability over our police.
AMY GOODMAN: Robin, before we go, I just wanted to ask you about your going from activist to city councilmember, Minneapolis’s first Black democratic socialist city councilmember, if you feel any constraints as a councilmember, or if you feel that this now podium that you work from is actually just a place to amplify your activism, for many young people and older people who might consider going into elected office.
ROBIN WONSLEY WORLOBAH: Absolutely. I ran, one, as a socialist. And I believe, you know, through our political spaces, we have the opportunity as socialists who inherently believe that we cannot, as a collective society, thrive under an exploitive and violent and racist system of capitalism, which constantly shows that it cannot meet our collective needs every single day, especially in light of a pandemic, in light of heightened gun violence that will take out masses of our children one day and then masses of Black people at a grocery store the next. If we are under the belief and accepting the reality that capitalism cannot provide for our collective liberation or well-being, then, you know, as socialists, it’s our charge to bring forward a model that will, through basically organizing our communities, our societies, our cities around our collective needs, not the needs of shareholders, the profits more so of shareholders, or big business community.
And one of the ways in which we can help to organize around our collective well-being is through engaging working-class people where they most are engaged in, in the political spaces. One of those areas is one of those spaces where we can make material change around a whole host of issues that impact working-class people, from public safety to housing to climate to gun violence, around women’s rights with, you know, Roe v. Wade coming down the pike in the overturn of that. That’s one space where we can make material change but also amplify the demands of working-class people, the needs of working-class people.
And it’s not just activists. I’m here — when I’m talking about rent control, it’s because I know people are struggling to afford rent in a profit-driven market, housing market here. When I talk about need for a new model of public safety, it’s because I know white people in my city, Black people are dying at the hands of a violent and racist policing department. When I talk about the need for 24/7 bus lanes and green infrastructure, it’s because I know so many of my residents, constituents here, are breathing in polluted air as a result of corporate polluters. So, this is one of the many spaces, you know, in City Hall to your workspaces, you know, to the classroom. There are so many spaces where working-class people are, you know, organized by their basic needs, you know, from housing to food to incomes, and also the political is part of that.
So, I think, you know, I don’t feel constrained. I’m also not — I’m an independent. I’m the only independent on City Council. And I ran as an independent because I know the Democratic Party has not been a place where working-class people have had their needs be, you know, really upholded or have been really taken seriously. In fact, most of my organizing work, I’ve had to fight Democrats for a 15 minimum wage, for better public safety standards, for better or clean air. I should not have to fight who is supposed to be my friends, but that has been my political course. So, I don’t feel limited, and it’s because I’m an independent, and it’s because I’m rooted in the struggles of ordinary people. And that’s why I’m in this space. If you are rooted in the struggles and you are deeply committed to addressing the issues that ordinary people experience every day and you are in a position of power, you should never feel constrained to champion the demands and the policy changes that’s going to actually help make working-class people’s lives better, that’s going to give them a chance to have a quality of life that they deserve and need. So, I feel no constraints. And I am further emboldened by the energy that working-class people demonstrate every single day in the midst of so many dark and heavy struggles and battles that we’re enduring right now. And it makes me grateful to be in this position.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Robin, we thank you so much for spending this time with us. Robin Wonsley is Minneapolis’s first Black democratic socialist city councilmember, longtime Minneapolis organizer and activist, as we speak on this week, the second anniversary of the police murder of George Floyd. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks so much for joining us.