A mural stands in memoriam outside the Cup Foods convenience store in Minneapolis near where George Floyd was murdered by police May 25, 2020. The area is now known as George Floyd Square. Photo by Nancy M. Musinguzi
We understand that abolition is the long game. We’re in it for as long as it takes.
May 25, 2020 is a day we will never forget. It was sunny and our “pandemic pod” of organizers (we share a home in Minneapolis) were planning a socially distanced cookout. Kandace sent her partner out for supplies, deciding at the last minute to go to the grocery for fresh ingredients — instead of Cup Foods, two blocks away.
At 7:34 p.m. at Cup, a 46-year-old security guard who had lost his job during the pandemic showed up for a pack of cigarettes. Within hours, Kandace would receive a flood of texts: Police had killed an unarmed Black man (we didn’t yet know his name) in front of Cup. Not a day goes by that Kandace doesn’t wonder whether things would have gone differently if her partner had run that errand to Cup.
Miski had already gone to bed with a bad migraine, and stayed home sick the next morning. They reached for their phone around noon to find dozens of texts, calls and voice memos from comrades across the country, the familiar outpouring of love and concern every time police kill an unarmed Black person. By then, we knew his name: George Floyd.
When these moments of crisis first hit, everyone asks you what you need, and you don’t know the answer. You are just coming to grips with the change happening around you. But the call to become a shaper of this change is strong and vital.
Organizing can never take credit for the energy and will of the community. What it can do is provide a container to understand the moment and build toward collective solutions to address our individual pain.
We got together with other organizers at Black Visions Collective, a power- and base-building organization we co-founded, and allies at Reclaim the Block, another grassroots justice group in Minneapolis. Within 26 hours, we released a petition that demanded the defunding of the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD).
One month of organizing, agitating and uprisings later, the movement in defense of Black lives achieved one of its first abolitionist wins: The Minneapolis City Council unanimously supported an amendment to disband the MPD. The Minneapolis City Council is not particularly radical or visionary. It was only after weeks of intense, Black-led, multi-racial organizing that the council was forced to act.
That summer, we saw our righteous outrage at the death of George Floyd ignite a powerful movement that continues to create impact across the globe. With organizers in other cities, we’ve built a Black-led, multi-racial coalition that recognizes how white supremacy harms all of us, particularly Black and Indigenous people of color, but also our Latinx, Asian and white allies.
As many as 26 million people flooded the streets in the weeks after George Floyd’s murder: Black people organizing our communities in the millions to vote out white supremacy from the White House; Black women leading the way in Georgia to flip the Senate’s balance of power.
But this May 25, the anniversary of George Floyd’s murder, was a painful reminder of the collective trauma the people in Minneapolis and across the country experienced last summer, and too many summers before. We still have not received healing in the form of transformative justice.
Here in Minneapolis, a commission of unelected bureaucrats blocked the council’s recommendation to defund the police. Today, the MPD continues to function using tens of millions of taxpayer dollars, while our calls for investment in true public safety have failed to be adopted.
We demand more. Our communities deserve more.
We demand transformation.
We’ve spent this past year getting familiar with the legal roadblocks thrown up by bureaucrats afraid of change, and devising methods to thwart them. We know what we’re doing in Minneapolis matters to other defund and abolition efforts, from New York to London to Los Angeles, and we are committed to the continued organizing it will take to make real our vision.
THE ROAD TO DEFUND
The transformative demand to “defund the police” moved abolition to the center of conversations and imaginations across the country and the world in 2020, but its roots run deeper. We would not have been ready this past summer had we not been organizing and educating ourselves for years prior, following the brilliance of Ancestors and mentors and the teachings of our own experiences to shape our approach to dismantling systems of oppression.
For us, the journey of political education that led to the demand to defund the police began in 2014, after police in Ferguson, Mo., killed Michael Brown. Fifteen months later, the Minneapolis police killed Jamar Clark.
After the death of Jamar Clark, who was shot by the MPD 61 seconds after they approached him, we were part of the response that established a No Cop Zone and the subsequent 18-day occupation of the 4th precinct police station.
In getting involved with this current iteration of the Black Freedom Struggle, Miski felt they had found the civil rights movement of our time. And like civil rights activists of the 1950s and 1960s, we were shot at by white supremacists, who injured five people (while police looked the other way). At this early stage, our demands were not yet abolitionist. Rather than transform the existing system, we still sought to use its structures, calling for federal and state authorities to release the tape of Clark’s killing, for a special prosecutor and not a grand jury to select the charges, and for the Department of Justice to investigate.
After the occupation, we began to connect across the Movement for Black Lives and other national movement formations, like Momentum and BOLD, that nurtured and developed our analysis as Black liberation and movement organizers. We have had the opportunity to train with some of the most brilliant and thoughtful Black organizers and leaders — Denise Perry, Adaku Utah, adrienne maree brown — and read the work of people and groups like Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Andrea Ritchie, Mariame Kaba, Rachel Herzing, Critical Resistance and Project NIA.
As we learned about abolition through a Black, queer and transfeminist lens built on our own identities, we grew in our transformative vision of true abolition. This is about recognizing that policing is a virulent force that must be addressed head on — and about so much more: healing justice, transformative justice and transformation toward a better world.
In December 2017, holding this vision to push transformative change in Minneapolis, we co-founded the Black Visions with Oluchi Omeoga, Sophia Benrud, Hani Ali, Yolanda Hare, Ar’Tesha Saballos and Abijah Archer. We aimed to center our work in healing and transformative justice principles, intentionally developing the organization’s “core DNA” to ensure sustainability and develop Minnesota’s emerging Black leadership. We called for redirecting funding from police to community-led initiatives, such as support for houseless people, queer and transgender youth, and mental health services.
With our allies at Reclaim the Block, our organizing successfully pushed the Minneapolis mayor and city council in 2018 to move $1.1 million away from the police department to programs including a new Office of Violence Prevention that would provide community safety programs without police.
What we did not expect was for the mayor to join with the police the following year to stoke fears about a surge in crime, which was used to justify an $8.3 million increase in the police budget in early 2020.
We learned from that pushback. When George Floyd was murdered, our prior organizing helped us move swiftly to make it clear to city government that we would not settle for less than transformative change.
We immediately released our defund petition and used an inside-outside approach to pressure city council. Every night, our policy team was on the phone with council members, pushing to defund. Every day, our organizing team was on a call with about 70 Black organizers to coordinate how to support protests with supplies, donations, trainings, medics and art.
As the uprising in the street continued, we pushed the city council from every side, sending them research, mobilizing their constituents to contact them, and, on May 29, giving them a 24-hour deadline to sign our petition to defund. When they all failed to do so, we organized an action to leave art in memory of George Floyd in each of their yards. Members of Black Visions created mock tombstones with pictures of George Floyd, flowers and the message: Defund. Four council members pledged after that.
On June 6, we led a protest march to the house of Mayor Jacob Frey, a timid, play-it-safe politician. Kandace held a microphone to his face and asked a yes-or-no question: Would he commit to defunding the police? When he answered, “I do not support the full abolition of the police,” the crowd booed him down.
Video of the confrontation went viral, and the rest of the council soon pledged to defund. On June 26, the Minneapolis City Council announced that all 12 of its members had voted to disband the police department.
But the devil remained in the details. The next step was to get the defund amendment on the ballot in fall 2020, so the people of Minneapolis could decide. An unelected body of Minneapolis bureaucrats and their pro-police allies stopped our efforts. The 15-member Charter Commission, appointed by the county’s chief judge, rejected the proposal. While proposals they reject can be put directly on the ballot by the city council or a citizen’s initiative, the commission delayed its decision until it was too late for the proposal to go on the 2020 ballot.
As the people of Minneapolis and greater Minnesota call for justice, healing and care, our city and state officials respond by spending millions of dollars on more police, as if they’re preparing for war with the community — when the community is in the streets demanding justice for our people.
Police pepper-sprayed, tear-gassed and fired rubber bullets at protesters rising up for 20-year-old Daunte Wright, killed by Minnesota police after a traffic stop April 11 — even though MPD use of rubber bullets during summer 2020 blinded and caused brain damage in people. (The MPD currently faces lawsuits for use of excessive force against protesters and journalists in the summer 2020 uprising.) In just the first three months of 2021, the MPD self-reported use of force against 257 people, averaging 2.8 people per day. The actual numbers are likely far higher. Additional police training, the favored fix of some bureaucrats, will not fix white supremacist violence and racism. (Ironically, the current administration is planning a Department of Justice probe into Minneapolis, years after we came to know with certainty that such bureaucratic measures will not create the change we need.)
After the Charter Commission roadblocked the 2020 ballot measure to defund MPD, Black Visions and our allies formed the Yes 4 Minneapolis Coalition to renew our fight to bring this issue to voters this November. On April 30, we delivered to the city clerk 25,530 signatures on a people’s petition to replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a new Department of Public Safety.
Unlike the city council proposal, the Charter Commission cannot refuse to put this measure on the ballot — now that it is city clerk-certified for clearing the necessary 11,906 signatures. Having learned from the past, we are prepared for the City Council and mayor’s office to throw up other obstacles, such as utilizing their power to word the ballot measure to suit their agenda and, if the initiative passes, to write ordinances to interpret the law. We will be ready.
WHAT WILL REPLACE THE MPD?
This petition is the first step in letting the people of our city decide what safety looks like for our communities.
As Ruth Wilson Gilmore says, “Abolition is about presence, not absence. It’s about building life-affirming institutions.” In designing a plan for a new Department of Public Safety, we’ve been freedom-dreaming with community partners here in Minneapolis and around the country about what Black liberation will look like practically, in our daily lives.
We have spent the past year working in the community and with the families of George Floyd, Daunte Wright and others killed by police to expand mental health crisis assistance, to generate resources for healers, elders, clergy and community leaders to support restorative neighborhood-based practices, and to respond to the needs of our neighbors and loved ones.
We are inspired by all the historic and incredible ways the community has already shown up for one another. George Floyd Square organizers held down a police-free zone for more than a year, where people came together for joy and healing while providing community-led security and demanding justice and accountability from policymakers and institutions.
Part of our work has involved something we never would have expected: redistributing money. Before May 25, we were a tiny organization with Black, queer and trans leadership, just beginning to talk about decision-making processes and membership growth. After May 25, as donations came in, our budget doubled very quickly, and doubled again, and again. In total, Black Visions and Reclaim the Block received $30 million after our call to defund the MPD.
Together with Reclaim the Block, we established an Emergency Fund, which distributed $767,000 in immediate aid to meet the needs of the community reeling from George Floyd’s murder and the pandemic, such as rent, healthcare costs and school supplies. The two organizations then joined with Nexus Community Partners to establish the Transformative Black-led Movement Fund to further redistribute donations. Another $1.1 million went to community members, and we awarded $6 million in grants to more than a hundred Twin Cities-based organizations, collectives, artists and healers led by Black, Indigenous and people of color. All of them are innovating alternatives to policing and real solutions for safety — from race-based therapy, art therapy and yoga to providing affordable healthy food to transforming models for schools. All commit to not using any of the money to collaborate with the police.
Now we are thinking about how to seed abolition work for the long term. Every year, just in Minnesota, far more than $30 million is needed for all our movements. We need philanthropy to step up, and we need a transformation of public investment in the people, not the police.
Not all of the solutions are clear right now; we are learning and innovating as we go. We recognize that the people most harmed by current unjust systems devise the most effective solutions. So we’re also beginning a People’s Movement Assembly process in Minneapolis to define safety together as a community.
Our assemblies are inspired by participatory self-governance practices in the U.S. South, in Kurdistan and by the Zapatistas. We’ve benefited from panels and trainings with Rukia Lumumba, an organizer with the Movement for Black Lives and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, who helps organize the Jackson People’s Assembly in Jackson, Miss.; Erica Perry, an organizer of the Black Nashville Assembly; and Mercedes Fulbright, organizing director with the Texas Working Families Party, who organized People’s Assemblies in Dallas this past year.
Over the course of the summer, we’ll move from small to larger assemblies, in concentric circles of alignment building. The idea, as Project South’s People’s Movement Assembly Organizing Handbook puts it, is to avoid having “a single leader, organization or predetermined goal” and instead place trust and leadership in the hands of the people who convene to make decisions together.
We are in this work because our lives depend on it. We’re building a world in which ALL Black lives matter, with a focus on the most marginalized people in our communities: people who are queer, trans, Indigenous, disabled, immigrant and poor. Until we are able to live without fear, we’ll keep pushing our bold vision.
Ultimately, our work is about building and centering Black power and leadership to move us toward Black liberation. We’ve each been organizers for years, and we know it’s the day-to-day work that determines whether we succeed — the work that happens after the cameras have left, the fundraising dries up and the attention fades.
We invite communities across Minnesota and the nation to join us and get activated in our shared struggle for Black liberation, dignity and equity for all.
We understand that abolition is the long game. We’re in it for as long as it takes.
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Kandace Montgomery is a cofounder of Black Visions, working to shape a political home for Black people across Minnesota. Black Visions is a central member of the Movement for Black Lives.
Miski Noor is a cofounder of Black Visions, working to shape a political home for Black people across Minnesota. Black Visions is a central member of the Movement for Black Lives.