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Minneapolis Elections after the Uprising: A Crushing Defeat for “Progressive” Democrats

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From Seattle, where a Republican will be City Attorney for the first time in 30 years, to India Walton’s dismal defeat in New York, progressive Democrats are facing a hard reality: performative “woke” speeches and empty soundbytes are not a solution to the challenges facing working class people. No where was this more true than in Minneapolis – the epicenter of the George Floyd rebellion. 

The Democratic Party’s keystone legislation during the BLM uprising was a vaguely worded referendum to abolish the Minneapolis Police Department, known as Question #2, that made widespread national news when it was soundly defeated with 56% voting against changing the police department. Mayor Jacob Frey returns to office with enhanced powers from a confusingly worded referendum that also passed, alongside a City Council majority that is more favorable to his pro-police, pro-business, pro-developer policies. For working-class people in Minneapolis, especially women and people of color, this setback couldn’t have come at a worse time. There has been no meaningful change to racist policing, evictions are resuming, and rents increased 5% since last January. 

However, it would be insufficient to say that these election results show that working class people are moving to the right. For example, three Democratic Socialist of America (DSA)-endorsed candidates won city council seats in Minneapolis, with Robin Wonsley Worlobah elected as an independent socialist. They won precisely because their campaigns were linked to concrete proposals, particularly a pathway to passing strong rent control. In addition, Socialist Alternative Seattle Councilmember Kshama Sawant defeated a right-wing, billionaire backed recall campaign on electoral terrain that was designed to defeat her. 

In reality, Minneapolis voters rejected a City Council that initially tried to co-opt the George Floyd uprising. The Council majority’s answer to the biggest protest movement in US history, and the deep problem of racist police violence, was a pledge to “abolish” the police, which they  immediately walked back. Eventually, this same council voted twice to increase funding to the very police department they claimed they were trying to abolish. By the time the discredited City Council’s championed proposal on policing got before voters, it appeared more like palace intrigue in City Hall than a serious proposal for reform.

Under the pressure from the movement and a growing coalition organized by Minneapolis United for Rent Control, a majority of voters approved a path to pass rent control. By strengthening this independent movement for rent control, backed by unions, social justice organizations, faith groups, and the newly elected socialists on City Council, working people have a crucial opportunity to take away Mayor Frey and the political establishment’s rightward mandate. 

Woke, Liberal Democrats Crushed

At the height of the George Floyd rebellion, nine Minneapolis City Council Members tried to jump in front of the movement, pledging to “dismantle” the Minneapolis Police Department. Socialist Alternative warned of a looming betrayal, though we pointed out that the City Council felt compelled to take up the demand because of the strength of the movement. The council was overseeing ground zero of what had become the largest protest movement in US history, eventually spreading to more than 2,000 cities and small towns, many of which were in “red” states. At its height, polls showed a majority of Americans felt that it was “justified” to burn down the Minneapolis Third Police Precinct, where Derek Chauvin worked.

Several unions were quick to issue statements condemning George Floyd’s murder, including the Minnesota Nurses Association and the Minneapolis and St. Paul teachers’ unions. Members of Socialist Alternative in the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1005 organized solidarity with the uprising by refusing to transport arrested protesters to jail, which spurred similar actions across the country and showed the role unions can play against injustice. 

City Council incumbents paid a heavy price for their utter betrayal of the George Floyd uprising. Only two of the original nine City Council Members who made the infamous “Powderhorn Promise” to abolish the Minneapolis Police Department will be on the next council. Most were defeated by pro-business, pro-police, establishment-chosen candidates, or chose not to run. Three DSA-endorsed candidates succeeded by reaching working class people disillusioned with the politics of woke, liberal soundbytes. They did not shy away from talking about police reform but also linked their campaign’s to a wider set of economic demands, like rent control. 

One of the two surviving Council Members, Andrew Johnson, was not challenged by the political establishment because he publicly backed away from any meaningful commitment to police reform almost as soon as he got back from the park. The other, Jeremiah Ellison, only received 32% of the first round votes, but was eventually able to fend off his challengers by 2% in the second round of ranked choice voting. Council Members Steve Fletcher, Phillipe Cunningham, and Jeremy Schrader lost outright to their thoroughly establishment challengers. Council Vice-President Lisa Bender, who initially led the charge for City Council’s top-down effort to “abolish” the MPD, did not seek re-election. This election was a clear example of how the empty, “woke” sloganeering and demands that many Democrats take up under the pressure of movements, but then refuse to follow through with, will be used against them by more right-wing or centrist forces.

The only Green Party member of the Council, longtime incumbent Cam Gordon, got third place in the first round of voting. While Gordon voted for progressive policies more than others on the City Council, in practice he served as the left wing of the liberal majority in City Hall. This is why the Democratic Party didn’t bother to challenge him most years. His defeat highlights the dangers independents can face if they snuggle up too closely to the establishment. Working-class people want candidates who are prepared to upend politics-as-usual to win victories, demonstrated by the fact that Cam was defeated by Robin Wonsley Worlobah, an independent socialist with real roots in grassroots movements.

How Did Mayor Frey Who Presided Over the Police Department That Murdered George Floyd Survive Re-election? 

Mayor Frey won re-election in a landslide. With his big business backing, it’s not surprising that Frey won handily in the wealthier, whiter, and older wards of the city. What is surprising is that he also swept every precinct in North Minneapolis, the historic center of the Black community, and Cedar-Riverside, a major hub of the East African community. In these areas, Frey was aided by a non-stop media blitz playing up the threat of crime, gangs, and gun violence, which are a very real problem for day-to-day life in inner city, working-class neighborhoods. 

Against the movement to make substantive change to the Minneapolis Police Department, Frey played up his willingness to collaborate with Police Chief Arradondo, who was re-cast by the media as a police reformer. In reality, Arradondo had ignored warnings that his Third Precinct, Derek Chauvin’s workplace, was a “playground for renegade cops”. Under Arradondo’s leadership, his department initially tried to cover up George Floyd’s brutal murder with a press release titled “Man Dies of Medical Incident After Police Interaction.” After securing a $27 million increase to the Minneapolis Police Department budget, with no substantial amendments coming from City Council, Arradondo announced his retirement in 2021. 

Frey and Arradondo were also propped up by a section of the “traditional” leadership of Black clergy members, community leaders, and politicians whose position was threatened by the youth-led George Floyd uprisings that swept the country. Two weeks after George Floyd’s murder, they backed Mayor Frey and Chief Arradondo’s empty promises for police reform at a press conference. Nekima Levy-Armstrong, the former President of the local NAACP chapter and a prominent figure during the first wave of Black Lives Matter in 2015, said “we expect the African American community to have a seat at the table. Nothing about us without us.”

Unfortunately, even sections of the socialist left found themselves on the wrong side of the immediate struggle, adding to these fearmongering efforts by emphasizing the limits of the police reform referendum, ignoring its role as a mandate for reform that could spur momentum behind the BLM movement.  By contrast, Socialist Alternative MN called for a “yes” vote on the policing amendment, though we laid out that we had no confidence in the Democratic Party-led City Council, and we emphasized that it would take a relentless grassroots movement. Such a movement would be encouraged by a “yes” vote, to win meaningful reforms like putting the question of public safety under democratic, community control with full powers to hire and fire officers, set budgets, department priorities, etc.

The Democrats’ Top-Down Approach to “Dismantle” The Police

The initial widespread support for “dismantling” the police was rooted in the brutality of policing under U.S. capitalism, which is more militarized, more violent, and more racist than any other advanced capitalist country. Black people also face disproportionate levels of housing discrimination, poverty wages, unemployment, and deaths from COVID-19. The ruling class understands how this situation can boil over into popular uprisings that threaten their wealth and privilege, so they rely on tools like racist repression to keep people divided. The guilty verdicts in both trials of former police officers Derek Chauvin and Kim Potter show how a multi-racial working-class movement, not the Minneapolis City Council, is the key force to fight against racist police violence. Our movement must fight at the same time to address the underlying structural inequalities which the police act to defend. 

One of the main obstacles to winning real change is the Democratic Party, which is tied by a million threads to billionaires, corporations, and cops. This is why we need to build a new party for working-class people that unapologetically represents social justice movements in hostile city halls. Council Member Robin Wonsley Worlobah’s recent election shows the room for independent politics to grow and succeed, while Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant is the best example of a class-struggle elected official. A mass, democratically organized party with tens of thousands of candidates who are rooted in our struggles and accountable to our movements would be an infinitely more powerful force to combat the racism of U.S. capitalism and the betrayals of the Democratic Party. 

Furthermore, socialists argue that dismantling policing requires dismantling capitalism itself, because an armed force that can violently enforce their economic system is key to the capitalist class maintaining its hold on power. To achieve this, we need to build an explicitly revolutionary party that links the current struggles against police brutality to the need for a society run by working people, not corporations and billionaires. A central task of a workers’ government, where key corporations are brought into public ownership and working-class people have democratic control of the economy, is to combat the racist legacy of slavery, imperialism, and inequality of all forms, and create the conditions for a society truly free from racist policing, exploitation, and oppression. This will include working-class communities democratically organizing their own safety and protection.

As the local administrators of capitalism in Minneapolis, City Council had no interest in actually abolishing or dismantling the police, though they recognized that the MPD itself faced a total crisis of legitimacy. However, the City Council carried out this reboot in a top-down manner, relying on a hostile City Hall bureaucracy that sabotaged their efforts. On top of this they capitulated to Mayor Frey’s demands for more funding at every turn, undermining their credibility as reformers. 

If a determined rank-and-file had organized to give a lead within the local labor movement, with organized community and workplace discussions to address the deeper fears of violence that are an honest concern of most ordinary people, the movement could have been better positioned to win. The uprising showed that the multiracial working-class will take to the streets in unprecedented numbers to fight injustice, but to sustain the struggle, we need democratically accountable organization. 

However, the failure to restructure policing through a referendum lies at the feet of Minneapolis City Council, and not the youth-led George Floyd rebellion that forced a necessary discussion on policing in the first place.

Victory for Rent Control Shows Way Forward in Fight Against Racism

Fifty-three percent voted for a pathway to pass rent control in Minneapolis. The strongest rent control policy in the country passed in St. Paul. While rent control will overwhelmingly benefit immigrants and people of color, the fight for rent control requires building a multiracial movement of renters and working-class homeowners against a shared class opponent in the form of the Democratic Party establishment, corporate landlords, and big developers, who benefit most from status quo politics in Minneapolis. Together, these victories highlight that working-class people in the Twin Cities are still deeply committed to the fight against racism, so long as it’s linked to concrete working class demands which overwhelmingly benefit Black and brown people.

Socialist Alternative MN has played a leading role in building Minneapolis United for Rent Control (MURC), a broad coalition of unions, community organizations, faith groups and activists. In contrast to vague promises and open-ended processes from City Hall, Minneapolis United for Rent Control was clear from day one that it was committed to fighting for a set of demands that would amount to the strongest rent control policy in the country. From the start, MURC has been prepared to openly mobilize against Mayor Frey’s opposition and City Council’s backsliding, and the lessons from this struggle are important for renters, activists, and socialists across the country.

MURC’s consistent commitment to winning a clear proposal through a multiracial movement-building approach allowed it to avoid being accused of cynically electioneering on a life or death issue for working-class people, especially as eviction bans are lifted and rents are increasing. In contrast, other groups tried to use issues like rent control as a way to prop up their endorsed incumbents, even though these candidates themselves had made no real commitment to rent control. 

For example, Ward 4 Councilmember Phillipe Cunningham blamed voters for a generalized “backlash to progress in our city,” because he lost decisively to an establishment-backed challenger who mocked rent control supporters as “kids living in their parents basements.” However, the pathway to pass rent control passed with a majority support in his ward. Mayor Frey declared victory for the establishment and called for people to “come together.”  Also, former Council Member Steve Fletcher in Ward 3 mentioned “rent stabilization” only once on his own campaign Facebook page. Most precincts in Ward 3 voted overwhelmingly in favor of the rent control amendment and had given first choice to Ginger Jentzen’s socialist campaign in 2017, which prominently featured rent control as a demand.

Working people urgently need rent control, but we’re up against an entrenched and powerful corporate landlord lobby that wants to stop it. Over decades, real estate interests and big developers  have successfully eroded strong rent control in other cities but working-class people across the country are getting organized to close the loopholes and fight back. The Minneapolis City Council has the power to pass strong rent control, but the movement would be naive to assume City Hall will on its own. The only way to win the strongest possible rent control is by building a multiracial movement rooted in working-class communities, independent of City Hall’s influence, prepared to mobilize to days of action and gather petition signatures to force a vote, either through the city council or by taking our proposal directly to voters.

Where a Viable Left Alternative Was Presented, The Establishment Lost

It’s very likely that Yusra Arab, longtime Green Party Council Member Gordon’s establishment-backed opponent, would have won had it not been for Robin Wonsley Worlobah’s independent, socialist campaign. Robin was able to channel the frustration at City Council’s betrayals into a left-wing direction, fighting for a program of taxing “the Fortune 500 corporations in Minneapolis,” to “massively expand public transit, making it fully electric and free,” and “create a publicly owned energy utility: no new contracts with [fossil fuel corporations like] Xcel and Centerpoint.” Perhaps more importantly was Robin’s connection with the $15 minimum wage fight, which went toe-to-toe with a very similar cast of City Council Members as those who betrayed their promise to fundamentally reform policing. Socialist Alternative was happy to endorse Robin’s campaign.

In addition, Robin is joined by Jason Chavez and Aisha Chughtai, who fended off establishment-backed opponents in their elections for the open seats vacated by Alondra Cano and Lisa Bender. While these campaigns unfortunately did not follow Robin in severing ties with Democratic Party, both Chughtai and Chavez embraced and actively supported Minneapolis United for Rent Control’s movement-building approach to winning a pathway for strong rent control in Minneapolis. When City Council and Mayor Frey once again betrayed the movement and blocked the renter-led pathway over the summer, they took advantage of the moment to polarize against City Hall from the left, isolating their establishment-backed opponents. In their first week in office, the three DSA plus two Council Members published an op-ed committed to strong rent control

What will really matter to working-class people is whether the socialists can accomplish material victories: when they cannot, they must make visible what stands in the way and issue calls to action to mobilize working-class power. They should fight to overcome the deals made in the backrooms of City Hall, rather than sign onto proposals that sell-out the working class. This means being accountable to working-class and oppressed people, rather than accepting the veneer of establishment decorum in City Hall that routinely fails them. It means being willing to expose the corrosive role of the Chamber of Commerce, Mayor Frey, and their “colleagues” on City Council. To combat the subversive, backroom sabotage of the establishment, alongside public attacks, all three would benefit from the backing of a strong socialist organization that is rooted in movements. This should be a call to action for local DSA members and the rest of the left. After all, redistricting after the Census means they’ll need to fight for re-election in two years against a political establishment that simultaneously opposes them at every step while also blaming them for not “getting things done.” 

However, many DSA members elected to office have not taken this approach. DSA Congressman Jamaal Bowman voted to approve an additional $1 billion to fund Israel’s Iron Dome defense system (notably, fellow Squad-member Ilhan Omar also voted to support the funding), which flies in the face of working-class internationalism. Chicago Alderman André Vasquez voted more than once for an austerity budget proposed by the Chicago establishment. In both cases, these elected officials failed to stand-up to pressure from the establishment, which any elected socialist will face in the hostile halls of power. A section of the membership called for their resignation from DSA. A working class party to the left of the Democrats with a serious internal democracy and program for running candidates, composed of the left in the labor movement alongside organizations like DSA and Socialist Alternative, is long overdue as a force for the left.  

Fight For Rent Control, Building a Struggle From The Ground-Up!

Left progressives have shown that they can win elections, especially when they can jump out in front of social movements. However, without a mobilized, independent base of support to overcome the corporate wing of the Democratic party, it’s much harder to register meaningful victories for working-class people. This dynamic opened space for the right wing to make gains in local elections nationally this year.

Now the Great Resignation and two years of essential workers serving as the frontline to a pandemic have sparked mass discussion on the nature and exploitation of work, and support for unions is at a three-decade high nationally. Linking up struggles for union recognition and workplace rights with the fight for rent control can reinforce this increasing radicalization in working-class and young people. 

In Minneapolis, our best opportunity to strike a blow against the establishment, and the housing vultures who are circling to make billions off the next housing crisis, lies in our movement getting serious and organized about the fight for rent control. We must be prepared to overcome the landlord lobby and their loyal Council Members in City Hall. This means fighting until the very last vote to close every corporate and developer-friendly loophole, including the all-too-common exemptions for new construction and “vacancy decontrol” which can essentially render rent control a policy in name-only. 

To make clear what our movement is fighting for: tie rent increases to cost-of-living (no more than 3%), universally applied to every home regardless of date of construction, no “vacancy decontrol,” retroactively applied to cut-across price gouging, and enforced by a well-resourced renters board. To survive this term, the incoming council must be forced to address the underlying factors that led to George Floyd and Daunte Wright’s murder, namely the dramatic inequalities of our society, amplified by the racism of capitalism. After years of unprecedented crises for working-class people, we have great opportunities to get organized and fight back against this broken system and register historic victories. 

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