How a Pledge to Dismantle the Minneapolis Police Collapsed

MINNEAPOLIS — Over three months ago, a majority of the Minneapolis City Council pledged to defund the city’s police department, making a powerful statement that reverberated across the country. It shook up Capitol Hill and the presidential race, shocked residents, delighted activists and changed the trajectory of efforts to overhaul the police during a crucial window of tumult and political opportunity.

Now some council members would like a do-over.

Councilor Andrew Johnson, one of the nine members who supported the pledge in June, said in an interview that he meant the words “in spirit,” not by the letter. Another councilor, Phillipe Cunningham, said that the language in the pledge was “up for interpretation” and that even among council members soon after the promise was made, “it was very clear that most of us had interpreted that language differently.” Lisa Bender, the council president, paused for 16 seconds when asked if the council’s statement had led to uncertainty at a pivotal moment for the city.

“I think our pledge created confusion in the community and in our wards,” she said.

The regrets formalize a retreat that has quietly played out in Minneapolis in the months since George Floyd was killed by the police and the ensuing national uproar over the treatment of Black Americans by law enforcement and the country at large. After a summer that challenged society’s commitment to racial equality and raised the prospect of sweeping political change, a cool autumn reality is settling in.

National polls show decreasing support for Black Lives Matter since a sea change of good will in June. In Minneapolis, the most far-reaching policy efforts meant to address police violence have all but collapsed.

In interviews this month, about two dozen elected officials, protesters and community leaders described how the City Council members’ pledge to “end policing as we know it” — a mantra to meet the city’s pain — became a case study in how quickly political winds can shift, and what happens when idealistic efforts at structural change meet the legislative process and public opposition.

The pledge is now no closer to becoming policy, with fewer vocal champions than ever. It has been rejected by the city’s mayor, a plurality of residents in recent public opinion polls, and an increasing number of community groups. Taking its place have been the types of incremental reforms that the city’s progressive politicians had denounced.

In the meantime, “defunding the police” has become a talking point for state and national Republicans looking to paint liberals as anti-law-enforcement. It has been a thorn in the side of Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic presidential nominee, even though he rejects the idea. And it has ignited a power struggle in Minneapolis that has, in some cases, pitted moderate against progressive, young against old, and white against Black.

Linea Palmisano, a relatively moderate City Council member who was one of three councilors who did not take the pledge, castigated her colleagues: They “have gotten used to these kinds of progressive purity tests,” she said.

In a sign of the intensity of the debate, multiple people on both sides who spoke to The New York Times described their opponents as having “blood on their hands.”

“What kind of violence are we going to experience over the next year?” said Miski Noor, an organizer with Black Visions Collective, a leading activist group in the city seeking to defund and abolish the police department. “When these decisions are made on a political level, they have human consequences.”

Though some activists said the pledge was to be taken literally — a commitment to working toward complete police abolition — elected officials said there was widespread disagreement about its meaning. Some believed that “defund the police” meant redirecting some money in the police budget to social programs. Others thought it was a vague endorsement of a police-free future.

“I think the initial announcement created a certain level of confusion from residents at a time when the city really needed that stability,” said Mayor Jacob Frey, who declined to support the pledge. “I also think that the declaration itself meant a lot of different things to a lot of different people — and that included a healthy share of activists that were anticipating abolition.”

In lieu of larger policing changes, Minneapolis has moved to ban chokeholds, put in place new de-escalation requirements, and changed reporting measures for the use of force since Mr. Floyd’s killing.

Hanging over the debate was a surge in gun violence in Minneapolis this summer, with some community groups in Black neighborhoods worried that urgent needs for change had been crowded out by the big-picture focus on police funding and oversight.

Cathy Spann, a community activist who works in North Minneapolis, which is home to many of the city’s Black residents, said those paying the price for the city’s political paralysis were the exact communities that leaders had pledged to help. She is in favor of more police officers.

“They didn’t engage Black and brown people,” Ms. Spann said, referring to the City Council members. “And something about that does not sit right with me. Something about saying to the community, ‘We need to make change together,’ but instead you leave this community and me unsafe.”

The push-and-pull relationship between local government and progressive Black activists in Minneapolis started long before Mr. Floyd’s death. In 2015, after a police officer shot and killed a 24-year-old Black man named Jamar Clark, activist demands among the nascent Black Lives Matter movement mostly focused on bringing criminal charges against the involved officers. Three years later, when Minneapolis police officers shot and killed Thurman Blevins, 31, another Black man, many of the same activists called on the City Council to divest 5 percent of the police budget and direct that money toward social programs.

The council proposed a more limited cut of $1.1 million.

“We’re tired of weak reforms like body cameras, tweaks to civilian oversight and new signs in police cars,” a Black Visions organizer, Hani Ali, said at the time.

The intensifying demands mirror larger changes in Democratic politics and the progressive left, which have accelerated in the Trump era. Black Visions was formed in 2017, after the president’s election, by younger activists who had grown impatient with incrementalism. That year, political insurgency rocked Minneapolis politics: Mr. Frey defeated the incumbent mayor in a city municipal election, and two unabashed Black progressives who were allies of the activist left, Mr. Cunningham and Jeremiah Ellison, a son of the Minnesota politician Keith Ellison, captured seats in North Minneapolis, shifting the council’s ideological core.

But what seemed like a rising progressive tide distorted a more complicated picture, argued Dave Bicking, board member of Communities United Against Police Brutality, a grass-roots group in Minneapolis that was founded in 2000. He said that groups like Black Visions Collective and its partner organization, Reclaim the Block, had the ear of the new City Council, but that those in power seemed to treat the activists as stand-ins for all Black, progressive or younger residents, glossing over the diversity of those electorates.

“You can’t lump everybody together,” said Mr. Bicking, who is 69 years old and white but represents a wide-ranging community group. “The City Council would say: ‘Oh, we went out and talked to a lot of people. We listened to a lot of people.’ And, well, it was people from those two groups only. They weren’t listening to anybody else.”

The carefully constructed balance would be tested after Mr. Floyd’s killing. As the world watched Minneapolis, with thousands of protesters marching daily and occasional riots breaking out at night, Black Visions and Reclaim the Block returned to the councilors with their strongest demand yet: a pledge that would acknowledge that the police could not be reformed, and that would commit the city to working toward completely dismantling the department and rethinking public safety through follow-up community conversations.

The pledge was written, negotiated and circulated with the help of councilors like the younger Mr. Ellison, Mr. Cunningham and Alondra Cano. Ms. Cano and several other city councilors did not respond or follow up to requests to be interviewed.

“There’s a give and take with this job,” Mr. Ellison said. “You definitely have to be willing to listen to your constituents. But you also cannot be leaderless in this role. And sometimes you have to be a little bit ahead of your time and be a little bit ahead of your constituency.”

Ms. Bender, the council president, who was unreachable for days after Mr. Floyd’s death while she completed a wilderness trek with her family in Northeast Minnesota near Canada, said that when she returned to Minneapolis, she had immediate concerns about the pledge. Unlike previous policy demands, which made specific requests during a public debate around budget negotiations or police oversight structure, the pledge was an embrace of a police-free ideal — with no transition plan.

She and others tried to negotiate changes, they said. When activists stood their ground, councilors were left with two options: embrace a forceful but vague call to dismantle the police department, or oppose activists in a time of civic chaos, possibly risking their progressive reputations.

In text messages between councilors that were provided to The Times, the debate ranged from cordial to brusque.

“I’m not taking any pledge, if that means people throw bottles at me then fine,” Ms. Palmisano wrote.

“It’s the only way to stop all the fighting and division,” Ms. Cano wrote. She criticized the city’s mayor, who had recently been booed by protesters for rejecting calls to defund the police. “I think Jacob is totally missing the moral moment.”

In the end, on June 7, nine councilors stood with activists at Powderhorn Park during an event that was neither ambiguous nor done in spirit. The stage was adorned with “Defund the Police” lettering and, after the pledge was read, the crowd cheered the councilors with chants of “Defund M-P-D.”

But what looked like a united political front would soon be exposed as fractured. On a policy level, the councilors did not have the unilateral power to end the city’s police department — as some residents believed. Politically, some of the elected officials were taken aback by the national attention their message attracted.

“I was surprised and was overwhelmed by it,” Mr. Cunningham said. “A big lesson learned for me was to be mindful of the language and words we used and how it can be interpreted.”

Within days, President Trump and Republicans had found a new favorite talking point to try to win over suburban voters: Democrats wanted to abolish the police. Never mind that prominent party figures like Mr. Biden had joined the mayor in rejecting such proposals, making clear that the actions of the councilors had no purchase in the Democratic establishment.

In reality, their actions barely had support within their own civic body.

Asked when it became clear to her that the nine city councilors who took the pledge did not uniformly support its words, Ms. Bender said “it was clear to me at the time” of the rally.

Mr. Johnson, who stood on the stage at Powderhorn, said some councilors at the park were already devising ways to clean up the political mess they created.

One colleague told him, “Technically, if we rename the department, we’d end M.P.D.,” Mr. Johnson recalled.

The City Council pressed forward to make good on its pledge. Just weeks after the Powderhorn Park rally, it passed a provision that would ask voters to remove the police department from the city’s charter and place public safety duties under a new department with unspecified structure and aims. It was publicly proposed on a Wednesday and passed unanimously on a Friday. Councilors voted to expedite the process. There were no public hearings.

Mr. Ellison, who represents a larger Black constituency than other councilors, dismissed criticism that there should have been more public input.

“It’s important that you engage your own morality with some of these decisions,” he said. “And if you make the wrong call, then look, sometimes that’s the price of trying to be courageous.”

Mr. Bicking, whose activist group was not among those pushing the pledge, said the councilors were trying to pass the buck of responsibility. His group supports a smaller police force with more limited responsibilities.

“I think the City Council and the people they work with pretty much knew that this was a nonstarter,” he said of the charter amendment. “But it would get them off the hook and give them some time until things blow over.”

Their decision thrust the Minneapolis Charter Commission, a relatively obscure group of city volunteers, into the spotlight. The commission, whose members are appointed by the chief district judge and are not elected by voters, considers legal and technical questions to charter amendments before they go to residents for approval.

Commissioners had some concerns about the councilors’ proposal, saying it did not meet several guidelines, including legal provisions and necessary public input. But the optics did not help: a largely white, unelected board versus a diverse slate of city councilors supported by vocal progressive activists.

Andrea Rubenstein, a charter commission member and former civil rights lawyer, said she was inundated with emails saying: Pass the charter amendment — or else. Barry Clegg, the commission’s president, said on one morning he woke up to expletive-laden graffiti outside his house. His home was also egged.

“I don’t impugn the motives of the City Council, I think they were trying to do the right thing,” he said. “They should’ve tried to do it in a different way.”

As the commission weighed its options, evidence mounted that the public wanted police reform, but did not support the actions of councilors or share the aims of influential activists. A poll from The Minneapolis Star-Tribune found that a plurality of residents, including 50 percent of Black people, opposed reducing the size of the police department. Councilors said they repeatedly heard criticism from business owners and residents in more affluent areas of their wards who feared for their safety, as misinformation spread that the end of the police department was imminent.

In the charter commission, however, city councilors and their activist supporters found a common enemy.

“A majority-white, unelected board of people can’t decide that they knew better than the community,” said Miski Noor, the Black Visions organizer.

Ms. Bender, the council president, said: “I understand that we did not give the charter commission a lot of time to weigh a very substantive change to our system of government. I also know that we’re proposing a question to put to all of the voters of Minneapolis. And I think the charter commission is overstepping their role by digging so far deeply into the substantive question.”

Last month, in a 10-to-5 vote, the charter commission chose not to pass the councilors’ amendment and called for further study, killing the chances that it would appear on the ballot in November.

In 2021, when the mayor and City Council members must all run for re-election, there is a chance the amendment to remove the police department from the city’s charter could go in front of voters. For now, it is an exercise in finger-pointing, as Minneapolis’s relationship with its police department looks largely identical to the way it was before Mr. Floyd’s death.

Some who had supported the pledge said that the white liberalism that has long defined Minneapolis politics — and the larger Democratic Party — was often more about aesthetic embraces of racial justice than facing and fighting for its reality.

“I‘m embarrassed that we were not able to effect the kind of change I think people deserve,” Mr. Ellison said.

To arrive at this point — after all the protests, intense media interest and fierce ideological debates — is an indictment of the politicians, including the City Council, one activist argued at a recent public meeting near Powderhorn Park convened by Communities United Against Police Brutality. The activist, Michelle Gross, who opposes full-scale police abolition, blamed officials and the mayor for not working in concert.

“What I see happening is these council members and these other elected officials all trying to figure out how to put the genie back in the bottle,” she said. “And it’s up to us, in my opinion, to let them know that the genie ain’t going back in the bottle.”

Miski Noor, the activist, who uses who uses they/them pronouns, offered another hypothesis: It is a system working exactly as designed. Everyone, they said, had played their role as intended, stomping out attempts at systemic reform.

“It is the nature of white supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy or any of these other systems of oppression to want to do what is necessary to save themselves,” they added. “To adapt. To mutate. To move. To slow progress.”