Minneapolis, MN – Black Lives Matter mass protests of 2020 deserve full credit for the guilty verdict of former police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd. Millions of people shook the political establishment to its core by taking to the streets, rendering the establishment playbook all-too-often used to exonerate killer cops useless.
Instead, the police were forced to give up one of their own, lining up at the trial and in the media to distance official department policy from Chauvin’s gruesome action. Chauvin was sacrificed as a “bad apple” to preserve the illusion that the system delivers justice. This was a relief for the political establishment that has wasted years doing nothing to address racist police violence.
Former Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges was broadly criticized and ultimately not re-elected after a bungled response to the police murder of Jamar Clark in 2015. The past two City Councils have been applauded as the “most progressive” in Minneapolis’ history, but both failed to make any meaningful progress to reform the MPD or the conditions that led to George Floyd’s murder. Now, the movement faces deeper questions about how we can win systemic change. First and foremost this victory illuminates how urgently we need to get organized behind concrete proposals to remobilize working class people to fight back against out of control policing and systemic racism.
As many people grapple for a way forward, proposals have popped up across the country, mainly in the form of electoral initiatives. Last November in Philadelphia, voters approved making stop-and-frisk unlawful by 83% as well as creating a Citizens Police Oversight Commission (CPOC) by 79%. A similar civilian review board proposal has emerged in Chicago. In Minneapolis, there are genuine attempts to carry forward the movement from 2020.
The Democratic Establishment Isn’t Our Friend
After George Floyd was murdered by Derek Chauvin, Minneapolis — and the rest of the country — exploded with rage and mass protests against police brutality and racism. Without a clear strategy, the movement lost momentum, allowing the Democratic establishment to funnel local anger into safer channels by making big promises and demanding patience.
Instead, neighborhood organizing last summer could have been the basis for genuine community discussions about the challenges of public safety in a region that is home to 16 Fortune 500 companies alongside deep racial and economic inequality.
However, with the November elections on the horizon, the battle is not over. One charter amendment proposal is the Yes4Minneapolis campaign, backed by radical youth pushing forward the movement’s aspirations. It seeks to remove the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) from the City Charter and instead name it a Department of Public Safety. Although separate organizations, the campaign is collaborating with prominent nonprofit organizations like Black Visions Collective and Reclaim the Block, who were overwhelmed by millions of dollars in donations last summer. Yes4Mpls recently turned in over 20,000 signatures to the city, likely qualifying its proposal for the November 2021 ballot and overcoming the first hurdle in the process.
A similar proposal put forward by the City Council is moving through City Hall. Of course, the establishment’s betrayal from last summer should be a huge warning against the movement putting any trust in City Hall to make substantial change. The Democratic Party-led council has failed to deliver so far, diverting just under $8 million from the police budget to the Office of Violence Prevention, and only months later approving nearly $7 million to hire more police officers.
It’s positive that the Yes4Mpls campaign is being seen broadly as a way to strike a blow against the establishment, but we’re beginning on the back foot after a year of right-wing attacks. In one respect, removing the department from the city charter opens the door to a fight for concrete demands, like cutting the police budget by 50%, building the struggle for a community oversight board with power to hire, fire, and subpoena, as well as eject any officer with a history of racism, bigotry, or violence from the department.
On the other hand, the Democratic Party’s fear-mongering about “anarchy” and their massive mobilizations of law enforcement to suppress non-violent protests created the space for Republicans to wage a direct attack on the Black Lives Matter movement and propose “anti-riot” bills across the country. Without laying out a solid program, the space opened for change has been taken up by right-wing forces, the state, and police unions to sow fear and erode widespread support. The movement in Minneapolis and across the country needs to address the sincere fears people have about an uptick in gun violence. Poverty and the pandemic have left many isolated and desperate. This points toward the urgent need for anti-police brutality activists, socialists, and Black Lives Matter supporters to get more organized, with concrete proposals, to strike a real blow against the political establishment that has failed repeatedly to rein in out of control Police Departments across the country. This is the only way we will defeat right-wing attacks on our movements.
Is This the Community Control We Should Be Fighting For?
Another petition that has emerged in Minneapolis focuses on “community control” of the police by establishing a Civilian Police Accountability Commission (CPAC). In some ways it’s more easily understandable than Yes4Mpls, but it falls significantly short of addressing the key questions facing working-class communities and the movement’s aspirations.
First, while the proposal is clear about who should serve on the board, it’s unclear about a path to win. It’s not specific about how the board will address police violence. The campaign also announced it could go on for years and won’t be in a position to turn in signatures for the fall 2021 election, saying it’s possible to build for a February special election. That would spell disaster for any proposal intended to engage the wider working class, since most working-class and young people don’t turn out for special elections. This would be better terrain for big business and the political establishment to defeat any proposed change to the status quo.
It’s a weakness that the CPAC proposal does not link to demands that the movement can fight for now.
Without clear direction from below, this body would not have a mandate for change. That means this new oversight board would not have a clear mandate to carry out reforms that are broadly supported by working-class people, such as demilitarizing beat cops and employing alternatives like mental health professionals, and experts in addiction or violence prevention to respond to non-life-threatening situations.
If won, CPAC runs the risk of being another pointless city department, in addition to an already bulging list of mostly powerless advisory boards.
Both proposals aim to undo the city charter’s minimum requirement of police officers, which organizers for both approaches argue loosens up the city budget to make the space to cut funding to police. CPAC poses the question “what do you want to do with the cops?” without putting forward a vision, and in the current context seems like a proposal to the right of the push to fundamentally change the police department.
On the other hand, Yes4Mpls makes the opposite mistake: it boldly puts forward the need for fundamental change but relies on the insider politics of city council. After all, the city council cannot and will not end the role of policing in defending private property and segregation while carrying out its role as administrators of a city that’s run by big business and big developers. Socialist Alternative endorses Yes4Mpls because it is viewed as a mandate for fundamental change, but we have no confidence in city hall.
Working people in the city with aspirations to change policing and fight for Black Lives Matter should have a clear, democratic place to organize for next steps. This is why we need mass, open-air community meetings to discuss next steps in the movement. The state will oppose both proposals every step of the way, using bureaucratic maneuvers and their allies in city hall. It’s in the best interests of the movement to wage a real fight against the establishment for a community oversight committee with real teeth, which can only be achieved by a massive upheaval of the system.
What Should the Left Do in the 2021 Minneapolis Elections?
We need candidates who base themselves on movements and openly confront the corporations, big developers, police, and Democratic Party machine that runs Minneapolis. Rent control, COVID relief, addressing racism and community safety — these will be the key issues in the 2021 city elections.
The city council is weighing up two charter amendments put forward by Council President Bender, and Council Members Gordon and Ellison that widen the path to pass rent control in Minneapolis. One proposal puts the decision in the hands of the city council. The other allows for a renter-led initiative to go to voters in 2022. The City Council has passed both of these on to the Charter commission with a veto-proof majority. However, this is only the first hurdle in the process to put these proposals to voters in 2021. Once on the ballot, the fight really begins.
As a council member in 2016, Mayor Jacob Frey compared letting workers vote on $15 minimum wage to the Brexit vote in Britain, and his mayoral administration has been marked by this on-going disdain for social and economic justice. The conservative think-tank, the American Experiment, supports his stances against rent control and ordinary people being able to put forward proposals for a vote. During the $15 minimum wage fight, Frey fought for big business carve outs every step of the way. Mayor Frey’s administration has been a failure from the perspective of working-class and oppressed communities in Minneapolis. A second term will be more of the same equivocation and “process”-obsessed hand wringing to water down and delay any progressive attempts to win real change for working people, the unemployed, or oppressed communities in Minneapolis.
Any movement on progressive legislation, like rent control or restructuring the MPD, has come as a result of grassroots movements. As a result, the Charter Commission is now trying to consolidate more power into the Mayor’s office, an undemocratic maneuver that is in clear retaliation to mass protests and the success of struggles like the $15 minimum wage. However it would be a mistake to defend against this attack by fighting to simply move more powers over to the City Council, which is essentially what the City Council hopes to do with police reform and rent control. Working people and the left need to rapidly organize to assert our interests and register the strongest possible blow to the status quo that presided over the murder of George Floyd. We need candidates that are rooted in the social justice movements that actually win change.
This is why Socialist Alternative Minnesota members have endorsed Robin Wonsley Worlobah’s campaign in Ward 2 against sitting council member Cam Gordon. Robin is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), and is running as an independent socialist, and therefore not caucusing with the Democratic Party. She played a role in the 15 Now movement to raise Minneapolis’ minimum wage to $15/hour. Her program includes taxing the rich and support for Minneapolis United for Rent Control’s proposal for strong rent control. More importantly, Robin has been organizing events with her campaign to build these grassroots movements to win.
Several progressive candidates are running across the city, but most are unclear about building outside the Democratic party. A key lesson from Socialist Alternative’s experience running electoral campaigns as independent socialists and Council Member Kshama Sawant’s office in Seattle, is that it would be a serious mistake to underestimate the power of corporate-financed opposition and the political establishment that wants to protect its position at any cost.
Socialist Alternative ran Ginger Jentzen for Minneapolis City Council in 2017, nearly winning a seat after popularizing the fight for rent control, taxing the rich to fund housing and social services, and more. After raising a historic amount of money from grassroots donations, in a campaign fueled by hundreds of volunteers, big developers teamed up with big business to respond by running their own candidate and launching a PAC to flood the ward with mailers attacking Ginger and rent control. Winning the first round in votes but not enough to surpass 51%, our campaign was narrowly defeated in the last round of redistributed votes in the ranked-choice-voting process.
Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant is under attack by a racist, undemocratic, big business and right-wing backed attempt to recall her from office. This is entirely because of the steadfast fight that she, her council office, movements in Seattle, and Socialist Alternative have waged for working people since she was first elected in 2013.
Robin’s campaign will need to be crystal clear about what it takes to challenge big business and the Democratic status quo in City Hall. In her recent op-ed in USA Today, Robin doesn’t mention the criminal role that the Democratic Party-led City Council has played in presiding over not just George Floyd’s murder, but some of the worst racial inequalities in the entire U.S. Fighting unapologetically for working people means making enemies among powerful elites. This conservative pressure to downplay differences to get along is baked into the system. We must hold movement-based elected officials accountable and also defend them when they do take on the establishment. This is why simply breaking with the DFL is not enough. We need a new political force — a new party— to represent us in City Hall. Given that Robin has taken an important step to run outside the Democratic party, she should be a leader on clarifying what actions the working class needs to take to overcome the establishment, and consistently lay out the path to get there.
Big business won’t stand aside and passively watch us cut the police budget or pass rent control. They’re running and endorsing their own candidates and waging attacks that even the seeming progressive Democrats in City Hall don’t adequately answer. In a recent article on the process to pass rent control in Minneapolis, Councilmember Jeremiah Ellison focused only on the process. However, corporate landlords and developers are attacking the viability of rent control at every turn, and by ignoring this, the council hands the leverage to the big-business backed, conservative, anti-rent control wing of the council and corporate-backed candidates to attack the movement to stabilize rents.
In a brazen example, Latrisha Vetaw, who was elected to the Minneapolis Park Board in 2017 as a Green Party candidate, vacated her seat to challenge Phillipe Cunningham for City Council this year. Vetaw was at the forefront of evicting homeless encampments from the parks over the past year, doing nothing to fight for the housing and resources needed during the unprecedented COVID-19 crisis. As a council candidate, Vetaw was recorded recently telling a group of landlords that politics is a popularity contest, that they’re “the experts” and that she is “the expert” at putting on lipstick and selling their message. She said rent control supporters are just “young white kids” who live in their mom’s basement, and joked that any landlords on the call with tenants in the ward should force their tenants to caucus for her or see their leases be terminated. However, while sitting council member Cunningham voted to pass the amendments for rent control on to the Charter commission for review, he doesn’t include rent control in his program.
Too often, the progressive wing of the establishment stops short of combatting the Democratic machine with a real alternative, answering right-wing attacks with bold lip-service, but without calling for an organized response. A broad movement won a $15 minimum wage in 2017. Then a powerful movement forced a majority of the City Council to publicly pledge to dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department. When the progressive wing of the establishment tries to take credit for grassroots organizing but refuses to genuinely fight, blaming the corporate establishment but refusing to build a political alternative, it gives big business interests an opening to attack. To win progress, there is no shortcut to working-class people getting organized.
This is akin to big businesses like Amazon using the Black Lives Matter slogan under pressure of its widespread support, while in reality throwing anti-union attacks at an organizing drive of a mostly Black workforce in the Deep South and doubling down on their abhorrent working conditions in the name of profit. As Fred Hampton said, “if you dare to struggle, you dare to win.” Our movements need candidates who dare to struggle alongside working people getting organized, who don’t just see themselves as “policy wonks” who know what’s best and limit what is possible.
Historic Opportunities Call for Bold Answers
We are in a historic moment full of big opportunities for ordinary people to dramatically reshape society. In Minneapolis, this is taking the form of a deep debate about community safety, the future of the police department, rent control and — more broadly — whether working-class people should have greater say over our communities. It would be a tragic mistake to squander this moment by relying on City Hall and the Democratic Party to lead the way on any reform. Relying on the same forces that won Chauvin’s conviction, that forced a reckoning with racist, violent, and militarized policing across the country, that has forced the same council members who voiced opposition to rent control to now support it — that’s how we will win fundamental change. The key will be young people, socialists, the labor movement, and working-class people getting organized in a strong multiracial movement, around a clear set of demands, daring to win the transformative change so desperately needed in 2021 in Minneapolis, and far beyond.
- Socialist Alternative endorses Robin Wonsley Worbolah for City Council in Ward 2.
- Socialist Alternative endorses Yes4Minneapolis and calls for an organized multiracial working-class fight for real systemic change in policing and public safety. We are fighting to:
- Cut the police budget by half.
- Demilitarize the police.
- Build the struggle for a community oversight board with power to hire, fire, and subpoena, as well as eject any officer with a history of racism, bigotry, or violence from the department.
- We need rent control! Support the strong proposal from Minneapolis United for Rent Control and an independent, working-class movement to win rent control as part of a broader housing program for working people in Minneapolis