The city is on fire. Grainy aerial shots show cars being destroyed, windows being smashed and people being dragged indiscriminately across the streets by police who look dressed for war. Fast forward 28 years and these same scenes began to erupt on the nights following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police department. This time, however, people did not wait for a verdict or a sentencing. When the video of Rodney King, unwittingly recorded by a resident, surfaced and played on television screens across the country many thought – ‘this is it’. There, in black and white, the world was able to see America in all of its remorseless brutality and violence. It was the textbook definition of a smoking gun – whilst the LAPD had a well documented history of terrorising black people, these cases usually lacked evidence. But here, as clear as day, people across the country watched four police officers beat a man with a level of ferocity and cruelty that no human being should ever have to endure. Their fellow officers watched on, as if nothing of note was happening. And perhaps to them this was run of the mill as none of them flinched while Rodney King was hit with two or three baton’s 56 times. Yet, as many of us know, all four officers were acquitted and by sundown LA was on fire.
The story of police brutality is not a new one. A study that was conducted by Philip Stinson, associate professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University, Ohio has shown that between 2005-2017 only 80 officers had been arrested for murder or manslaughter for police shootings and only 35% were convicted even though it has been reported that there are, on average, 1000 on duty police shootings a year, most of which are fatal.
Lamar Anthony Smith, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Alton Sterling, Jamar Clark. These are the names of just a few black people who were killed at the hands of the police. Some of their deaths were caught on camera and some of them weren’t; some were choked, whilst others were shot, sometimes it was with pretence but mostly it was for no reason at all. None of them, alongside countless others, were afforded justice. The officers involved in all of these high profile cases were either acquitted, their charges were dropped or no charges were even brought to them in the first place. Jamar Clark’s killers for instance were put on paid administrative leave.
So whilst on that hot April day in 1992 thousands of black people in LA anxiously waited to hear the verdict of the four police officers who caused an inordinate amount of physical and emotional trauma, only to be greeted with the words “not guilty”, people in Minneapolis waited for no one to give them justice. They know that in America justice is never given. It is taken.
Minneapolis: a short history
It has been almost three weeks since the initial protests began in Minneapolis. There have now been protests around the globe, with hundreds of thousands of people marching and protesting against the systemic and state sanctioned violence against black people at the hands of the police. Whilst many assumed these protests would eventually die down, especially on the announcement that all four officers have now been charged, the protests continue with innumerable amounts of people deciding to stand up for their rights even within a pandemic that has disproportionately affected and taken the lives of black people. Whilst it may have been the video of his senseless killing that had triggered these protests, it has become increasingly clear that this was never only about George Floyd.
Whilst America as a whole has a systemic problem with police brutality, particularly against black people, the Minneapolis police department has an especially violent track record with a noted history of not holding their officers to account. Vice President of the Minnesota Young Democrats and the Diversity and Outreach Vice Chair at Young Democrats of America, Khalid Mohamed spoke to The Meridian about the way the MPD are viewed in Minneapolis. As someone who grew up there, Mohamed mentions that “particularly in Minneapolis police are notoriously known for going after young African Americans and the black community generally”. He went on, “we used to go to the park and the police would just harass us for no reason… or stop you for no reason at all”. Mohamed’s experience is not anomalous.
“the killing of George Floyd, while one of the most glaring instances of police brutality in Minneapolis – maybe the worst CUAPB has seen – comes as the latest incident in a long history of oppression”
Approximately 20% of Minneapolis’s population is black yet they represent 60% of those who are subjected to police force, whether that is punches, kicks, chokeholds, use of mace, tasers etc. Eric Daigre, a senior lecturer at the University of Minnesota and an organiser with Communities United Against Police Brutality (CUAPB) highlights that “the killing of George Floyd, while one of the most glaring instances of police brutality in Minneapolis – maybe the worst CUAPB has seen – comes as the latest incident in a long history of oppression”. He goes on to say that as policing is a tool of “social control” it is therefore unsurprising that Black, Brown, and Indigenous people are “profiled, over-policed, over-surveilled, and disproportionately brutalised in Minneapolis”. Daigre mentions an example of over-policing, “from reports CUAPB has gotten, there’s a gas station in a predominantly African-American neighborhood where a cop just sits all day and scans the license plates of every car that comes in.” Clearly there is a long and well established distrust between the MPD and the black communities in Minneapolis that has now reached its critical point.
This tension is only exacerbated by a police culture of impunity where officers are rarely held to account. Even in the case of George Floyd, an attempted cover-up has been brought to light as the police sent out a press release that was titled “Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction”, failing to state that the medical incident in question was a police officer suffocating him to death by kneeling on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, waiting for the life to drain out of his body. If not for the video footage, this may have been the narrative of George Floyd’s death, an unfortunate accident as opposed to an extrajudicial murder.
It has not just been a case of negligence as Eric Daigre points out, the local government officials have helped the police skirt responsibility on a number of occasions. “In 2012, the mayor and city council dismantled the civilian review authority, which is the body responsible for investigating public complaints against police officers, and despite the overwhelming objections of the community members who spoke at public hearings, created the Office of Police Conduct Review. One year later, the Star Tribune ran a front-page story ‘439 complaints, 0 discipline.’ In its seven and a half years of existence, the OPCR has received over 2600 complaints and only meted out discipline in 12 cases. It is an abject failure by design, and the mayor and city council know it’s a failure, because we’ve presented them with this information time after time after time.”
“Would Terrance Franklin, Jamar Clark, Justine Damond, and George Floyd still be alive if these officers had ever been disciplined?”
Daigre mentions a number of cases where police with former complaints were not punished: “the MPD officers who killed Terrance Franklin in 2013 had 19 prior complaints against them, but received no discipline. The MPD officers who killed Jamar Clark in 2015 had 3 complaints filed against them, but again, zero discipline. The MPD officers who killed Justine Damond in 2017 had 6 complaints filed against them, but once again, they received no discipline. Now we are learning that those who killed George Floyd, former officers Chauvin and Thao, also have multiple complaints filed against them. Chauvin has had 7 complaints since 2012, but no discipline; and Thao has had 5 complaints dismissed while one remains still open. Would Terrance Franklin, Jamar Clark, Justine Damond, and George Floyd still be alive if these officers had ever been disciplined?”
In total Minnesota only revokes one or two licenses a year in comparison to the 35 in Oregon. Not only are police unlikely to be charged, they are unlikely to even face disciplinary action within their police department. A review by the Star Tribune, uncovered that three quarters of officers that are convicted of a crime are never disciplined and only a fifth lose their license. Whilst many of these convictions involve drinking and driving, dozens of other convictions are far more serious offences like assault and trespassing. Police Lieutenant Bob Kroll told the Star Tribune that aggressive cops are the ones they need: “your SWAT guys, your heat seekers, your guys that lead in…arrests, guns recovered, shootouts… they’re the ones where their personal life is a disaster”. Kroll has also been named in a discrimination law suit in 2007 which claimed that he wore “a motorcycle jacket with a ‘White Power’ badge sewn onto it.” He has called BLM a “terrorist group” and has chosen to train officers in something he calls “killology” instead of de-escalation techniques. Bob Kroll is currently the head of the Minneapolis Police Union.
Whilst many would assume that there would be a higher ethical and moral expectation for police officers who are enforcing the law, this investigation reveals that it is in fact the total opposite. Within the same system that allows officers to keep their police licenses after having committed crimes, black people are criminalised and punitively treated, representing nearly 37% of those in prison even though they are only 6% of the Minnesota population. They are also on the sharp end of harsh sentencing in comparison to white people, even when crime severity and criminal history are taken into account. We must take all of this into consideration when asking ourselves why in Minneapolis and why now?
Vanessa Taylor, a writer and activist, explains why she thinks the protests have happened now. “The [reason the] protests have kind of exploded is just because of the timing, honestly. We’re in the middle of a pandemic, people are unemployed. Unemployment rates have skyrocketed. We’ve only got a single 1200 dollar stimulus cheque, for most people that doesn’t really do anything, it can barely cover your rent and your bills. So people were already tired, they’re already kind of disillusioned.” Minneapolis Council-member Jeremiah Ellison also touched upon this economic disillusionment: “capitalism has shown to be a complete failure… people have been struggling you know resources are scarce for folks…. the way we built our economic system is a failure and I think that people are fed up.”
Whilst the underlying issues may be deep rooted, there has been a real sense of urgency when it comes to these protests, with thousands of people showing up amid global pandemic. Ellison also discussed his anxiety about all of this unfolding during a pandemic: “I am still extremely nervous about the spread of coronavirus. I get why people are hitting the streets, I would never discourage that, but you know I think of my mother who is a longtime activist who is in her own way always trying to represent a change for a better future. But she has MS and I think about all this protests and the fact that I’ve been out and exposing her, and I think that a devastating thing that could possibly come out of this is the just sort of unmitigated spread of this disease onto all the people who’ve been out protesting and fighting for justice, and I think that would be tragic. So I hope that we can keep each other safe, and that we can keep ourselves safe.”
“if i died today because of coronavirus…. I know I died for a cause.”
Khalid Mohamed also felt conflicted about going, his family had a discussion as his father is immuno-compromised and only one person could go. He told me that in the end “I did not give a shit. And the reason is when you see a horrific thing like what happened to George Floyd, you think ‘if i died today because of coronavirus…. I know I died for a cause.’ So that in the future my little brother doesn’t have to deal with that. My younger siblings don’t have to deal with police brutality.” He expressed all of the other avenues that have been exhausted “we had community town halls, we had like everything you can think of. We’ve done it in the past”. Councilman Jeremiah Ellison has also pointed out the futile nature of police reform, “we thought that reforms were the answer. You know, we thought, if you hire diverse police forces, if you incentivise police to live in a neighbourhood that they patrol or at least the city they work in [that things would get better]. We’ve done de-escalation training. We’ve invested millions of dollars, per police precinct around the country in body camera footage. And yet we still sort of get these results, we get it in high definition.I think largely reforms have turned out to be a bit of a joke and I think that we need to dramatically reimagine how we’re keeping people safe in our communities.”
Since my interview with Ellison, the Minneapolis city council has pledged to dismantle its police department. Ellison also pointed out the extraordinary nature of these protests, “while there have been, you know, mass demonstrations, not all of them peaceful throughout the years, I think that we’ve never seen quite this level of anger and anguish from a community in a really long time. We’ve certainly never seen a police precinct burned to the ground and I think it’s very telling of this moment that we’re in.” That feeling, that things are different this time, has been pointed out by the protesters that I’ve spoken to. George* a protester from the Twin Cities who was in Minneapolis in those first few days described the atmosphere, “it was a very charged atmosphere but it wasn’t hostile. People were laughing, people were singing, people were chanting, [there was] just a lot of solidarity between everyone, even people destroying the barricade were making sure people were safe. At one point someone saw droplets of blood on the ground, people were like who’s bleeding who needs help. There was first aid. So, I know the news always frames it as savage looters and rioters, but I just didn’t get that sense”.
“This wasn’t my first rodeo, I remember being out at Occupy Wall Street as a teen but this is the first time where the energy was just different”
Sofia* a protester in New York said that “this is different from other BLM protests or just general police violence protests because it seems as though the whole world is mobilised and you can tell that we’re at a tipping point right now.” When I asked what the atmosphere was like her voice lifts and sounds almost hopeful,“it was so invigorating, like it was amazing. I personally have been doing organising work for quite some time now, this wasn’t my first rodeo, I remember being out at Occupy Wall Street as a teen but this is the first time where the energy was just different”. There have now been Black Lives Matter protests in all 50 states and in many countries across the world.
But it hasn’t been met with a welcoming reception from the state. Sofia mentioned how the police would take a knee supposedly in solidarity but then start harming protesters soon after. “I literally saw with my own eyes” she said, “they took a knee and literally an hour later started beating us”. She went on, “the police are the one’s instigating the violence, everybody knows this, it’s all over the internet and it’s actually true. If there’s any quote unquote violence in the crowd the rest of us [the protesters] quickly put that to bed”. George also corroborates this sentiment: “their [the police] presence is nothing but fuel to a non-existent fire. Like they create the fire, if you know what I mean. If you just let the protesters be the cases of violence would not become as severe as they are. It’s always, at least from what I’ve seen, the police making it worse”. The extraordinary level of force used against largely peaceful crowds has been well documented, with journalists themselves being the target of rubber bullets, tear gas, mace and brute force.
Analysis by the Guardian and Bellingcat has found that there have been 148 arrests or attacks on journalists who were covering the George Floyd protests in the US. Eric Daigre has suggested that the police are in fact unwittingly helping the cause, “[the police are] beating up on crowds, news reporters, and everyday people in their own yards only legitimates the protestors’ grievances. And though it may seem paradoxical, it often brings the protestors even more sympathy and encourages new people to show up.” Media coverage of the protests have significantly dwindled, however there are still protests happening across the country with people turning up in their thousands, with no indication that they will be slowing down any time soon.
The protests in Minneapolis, however, continue to be at the epicentre of this movement. A movement which has swept the globe is still rooted in the local stories of anguish and terror that black people in Minneapolis, and Minnesota generally, have been living with for decades. Within the last five years there have been several high profile police brutality cases in Minnesota; Philando Castile, Jamar Clark, Thurman Blevins, Cordale Handy, Marcus Golden, Isak Aden – to name a few. Vanessa Taylor, who helped organise protests a few years ago, says “what you saw was essentially the people who are out on the frontline now, were out then. A lot of the black youth who I know are standing out on the frontlines right now, were your high school freshmen, sophomores, juniors at most when Jamar Clark and Philando Castile happened. They very much grew up protesting and organising and seeing this type of brutality… when you have people who have been through this so many times before just within the past five years, and the police did it one more time, it was enough.”
A future without police?
“The history of Minneapolis and St. Paul, and the entire region has been sort of this fraught relationship where it’s prosperity for white people who live here but it’s economic devastation and police abuse for black people, recent immigrants and indigenous people,” said Council-member Ellison. The economic chasm between black and white families in Minneapolis is among the worst in the country. The average black family earns less than half as much as the average white family per year, and the disparities only become starker when we look at wealth. Approximately 25% of black families in Minneapolis own their homes, in contrast to 76% of white families. Like in many cities across America, these huge discrepancies are rooted in a violent history of segregation and redlining that was determined to keep black people in certain areas, intentionally diverting resources away from these communities and trapping them in poverty. Meanwhile white areas, with government backed loans and inherited wealth, were able to steadily become more and more affluent.
This is about a whole system, people see the police as an institution that is meant to maintain and uphold these inequalities. Vanessa Taylor said “we need to look to the ideologies behind it and what policing is meant to uphold, ultimately policing is meant to uphold the status quo and the state, which in the United States is anti black.” However whilst many thousand have taken to the streets to rise up against these injustices, George points out that in his Minnesota suburb it feels like nothing is happening, “if I go in certain circles in my community, it’s as if nothing’s changed. I’ll walk down my street and people are having parties, people are mowing their lawn, people are just enjoying the June weather after being in lockup for so long. It’s almost as if I’m living in a different world than a lot of people in my community”.
Almost three weeks on, people are still coming out, but many are starting to ask ‘what’s next?’ Well, a lot of people have been calling for a complete overhaul. “We have a really clear romanticisation of revolution and what that word means.” Taylor says to me. “People really love revolution as an aesthetic. But the reality with revolution is that if the United States has a revolution, people are gonna die. That’s likely what’s going to happen. And you’re going to see more destruction than what’s going on. And I think people need to start learning to cope with that.” At least 19 people have died in the last few weeks. David McAtee, a black man from Louisville was fatally shot in the chest by police as he tried to protect his niece, and his body was left in the street for 12 hours.
The police’s violent response to protesters has only solidified in people’s minds that radical change needs to happen. “Defund the police” is not just a slogan or a protest chant – Council-member Ellison has said “justice is rare, but even if you get some form of justice, justice isn’t enough for people who want this to just stop happening”. People want more than just arrests and convictions, “I think the world is watching and if all we do is sort of break the piggy bank and then glue it all back together a lot of people are going to notice that as well. It would be a drastic mistake.”
Eric Daigre says, “we’re seeing national and perhaps even global uprising against police brutality and the prison industrial complex. History tells us that such movements can send power brokers scrambling as they try to restore order and make sense of things, often making concessions and agreeing to changes that wouldn’t happen in “normal” times.” Change will not come easily, as Eric asks “are our elected officials ready to listen? Time will tell. But the people in our city have made it clear they will not let up on the pressure.”
*Names have been changed to protect identities