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“Doubling Down”: How Minneapolis Elites Worked to Stop Police Reform After George Floyd’s Murder

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Wednesday marked two years since George Floyd was murdered by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, setting off worldwide protests against police violence. But has anything in Minneapolis changed? We spoke with longtime local activist Robin Wonsley Worlobah, who is also now Minneapolis’s first Black democratic socialist city councilmember. Wonsley Worlobah says the mayor has “not enacted any meaningful and effective oversight over one of the most dysfunctional, racist and violent policing departments in the country right now.” She says a big-business, pro-police coalition worked with politicians to build a multimillion-dollar campaign against the Black Lives Matter movement, successfully preventing any changes to the city’s police budget and public safety system. “If there was a way to go backwards, we’ve done it.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

This week 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. On Wednesday, the city of Minneapolis renamed the intersection where he was killed as George Perry Floyd Square. On the same day, members of Floyd’s family attended a White House ceremony where President Biden signed an executive order directing federal agencies to revise use-of-force policies, banning tactics like chokeholds and restricting practices like no-knock warrants, while establishing a national database of police misconduct. Biden’s executive order came as a reform bill, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, remains stalled in the Senate amidst Republican opposition.

On Wednesday, Juan González and I spoke with Robin Wonsley Worlobah. She’s a longtime activist in Minneapolis. Earlier this year, she became 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. I began by asking Robin Wonsley where she was when she heard about George Floyd’s murder Memorial Day weekend in 2020.

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.

AMY GOODMAN: Robin Wonsley is a democratic socialist member of the Minneapolis City Council.

Next up, we go to eastern Ukraine.

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