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Minneapolis organizers say rejected police proposal isn't a failure

The Yes 4 Minneapolis campaign failed to replace the city's police department. But organizers say the loss isn't a failure
Image: Protest against the death of African-American man George Floyd in Minneapolis
Minneapolis Police officers secure the area during a protest against the death of George Floyd on May 29, 2020.Lucas Jackson / Reuters file

Though Minneapolis voters on Tuesday rejected a proposal to replace the city’s embattled police department with a department of public safety, organizers of the effort said it was far from a failure.

The election drew a record turnout, with a majority (56 percent) turning down the proposal, and about 62,000 voters (44 percent) supporting it. Organizers had said the proposal would bring lasting change to the city where bystanders watched in horror as then-police officer Derek Chauvin, who is white, knelt on the neck of George Floyd, a Black man, for several minutes, killing him in May 2020, setting off nationwide and global protests against racial injustice and police brutality against people of color.

The support from so many voters comes at a time when a movement to “defund the police” has been dismissed by politicians across the political spectrum as unpopular and ineffective. But organizers said 44 percent is nothing to scoff at and that Tuesday’s turnout proves the tide is turning more than some leaders would have the nation believe.

“We’re definitely disappointed that we didn’t win this on an electoral scale, but we’ve won on a series of levels,” JaNaé Bates, communications director of Yes 4 Minneapolis, one of the grassroots group that spearheaded the amendment, told NBC News. “We have pushed not just the city of Minneapolis, but the entire country to talk about public safety in a way that it should be talked about, which is not just police.”

Supporters of the "Yes 4 Minneapolis" campaign.
Supporters of the "Yes 4 Minneapolis" campaign.Courtesy of Yes 4 Minneapolis Campaign

“For too long, we have collectively said that public safety and policing are one and the same, and they’re not. And we have forced that conversation into the international spotlight. Headlines are getting this wrong if they want to declare this a referendum on a movement,” she said.

The ballot initiative asked voters whether the city charter should be amended to remove the police department and replace it with a department that would take a “comprehensive public health approach” to public safety. The new entity would have included police officers, but there would be no minimum police staffing requirement, as the city charter requires. Also, instead of police officers, trained professionals would act as first responders in situations involving homelessness, people with mental health or substance abuse issues, and nonviolent crimes.

Opponents of the proposition, including Mayor Jacob Frey, dismissed the idea as poorly planned and said the amendment did not take into account residents’ concerns about crime.

“Tonight, Minneapolis voters have made clear that we want a planful approach to transforming policing and public safety in our city that needs to include meaningful consultation with the communities that are most impacted by both violent crime and by overpolicing,” said Leili Fatehi, manager of the All of Mpls campaign, which supports the existing police department, according to The Associated Press.

Thirty-three percent of Minneapolis respondents had favorable opinions of the police, while 53 percent reported unfavorable opinions, according to a September poll from local media outlets.

Strategists have said votes in favor of the proposition largely came from the city’s younger population.

"That says to me that young people are clamoring for change,” Abou Amara, a Minnesota attorney and political strategist, told KARE-TV. Before Floyd was murdered, the Minneapolis police department had come under fire for the police killing of Justine Ruszczyk Damond in July 2017 and Jamar Clark in November 2015. Shortly after Chauvin was convicted in Floyd’s murder, the Justice Department announced a sweeping investigation into policing practices in Minneapolis.

“Since the summer of 2018, and on a greater scale since MPD murdered George Floyd in 2020, Reclaim the Block has tried to move toward a Minneapolis that doesn’t rely on the police for the illusion of safety they provide with their powers of violence and criminalization,” said organizers of Reclaim the Block, a grassroots organization that worked on the Yes 4 Minneapolis campaign. “This work is not finished; our vision is powerful, hope is a discipline, and we know that we are not alone as we look towards the next stages of our work together.”

Advocates have been calling to defund police departments for years, but the recent movement was born in the wake of Floyd’s death, as organizers galvanized communities fed up with police violence. The movement calls for cutting police budgets, reallocating that money to community services — such as housing, food, health care, and more — and having trained professionals rather than police respond to mental health and substance use emergencies. Alongside this has come some calls to dismantle police departments entirely.

Image: Minneapolis voters to decide whether to abolish police department in wake of George Floyd's murder
Supporters of the "Yes For Minneapolis" campaign at a watch party after the measure to replace the Minneapolis police department failed on Nov. 2, 2021.Nicole Neri / Reuters

Community-led organizers who have strategies to address violence — including Life Camp in New York, Project NIA in Chicago, Advance Peace in Oakland, California — have stood as examples of this practice for the movement.

Driving these efforts is the knowledge that Black people are disproportionately criminalized and police violence has remained an issue. Police officers across the United States have fatally shot 940 people in the past year, according to The Washington Post. There is no sweeping national oversight when it comes to police interactions with minors, which allows a disproportionate use of excessive force on children of color, largely in schools.

Last June, a majority of the Minneapolis City Council agreed to dismantle the city's police department, with Councilman Jeremiah Ellison saying the council would work to disband the “current iteration” of the department, but only after a plan to do so.

Meanwhile, Council President Lisa Bender called relations with the city’s police department “toxic” and vowed to "re-create systems of public safety that actually keep us safe.”

Bates of Yes 4 Minneapolis said organizers worked to get an initiative to replace the police department on the ballot last year, but political leaders “pushed it off the ballot.” That’s when the group was formed, with about 70 other coalition groups including grassroots groups, faith-based organizations, labor unions and the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota.

She said the organizers knocked on “tens of thousands” of doors, had community members help craft the policy, and garnered 22,000 signatures (surpassing the 11,000 requirement) to get the measure on the ballot. She said opponents of the initiative, including the mayor’s office, only created roadblocks for organizers.

Political and legal fights consumed the Yes 4 Minneapolis effort, with opponents asking a Hennepin County judge to block the use of the organizers’ ballot language and bar them from moving forward with the initiative without a concrete plan to “implement the new department of public safety." In the months leading up to the election, the coalition asked the Minnesota Supreme Court to grant approval of the ballot question’s wording and bar city officials from taking any “further actions that may lead to the Proposed Amendment being left off the ballot this November," according to the Minnesota Star Tribune.

“It became very clear that when we were trying to have good-faith discussions on this, for them it was about throwing it off the ballot entirely,” Bates said. “It became an issue of clear democracy. We had to take it to the Supreme Court.”

Frey, who announced a public safety proposal in September, said upon his re-election Tuesday that he’s hoping to take a collaborative approach to the city’s policing problem.

“Let's work together," he said, according to KSTP. "Let's combine around these efforts right now and bring a multifaceted response for public safety."

Still, the organizers pushed through and managed to not only get the proposition on Tuesday’s ballot, but also garner 44 percent of the city’s voters. And Minneapolis organizers say they aren’t giving up.

"We weren't blown out of the water. We were in the fight. Sixty-thousand people in Minneapolis voted for a new vision of public safety,” Miski Noor, co-founder of Black Visions, which helped organize voters to support the initiative, previously told NBC News. “… there's a lot of momentum, a lot of excitement and folks who are really ready for this new vision of safety and really invested."