MPR News: Spotlight on Black Trauma and Policing

What comes after police disband? Part 2 in an ongoing series about transformative justice.
Resmaa Menakem, Brittany Lewis, and Justin Terrell speak with Angela Davis on MPR News.

On June 3, Call to Mind, Minnesota Public Radio’s mental health initiative, presented a live virtual community conversation to address the need for healing and action in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death. Hosted by MPR News’ Angela Davis, the conversation covered the history of racial injustice that led to Floyd’s murder and how trauma and policing affects Black Americans. 

The conversation included Resmaa Menakem, LICSW, cultural trauma expert and founder of Justice Leadership Solutions in Minneapolis; Justin Terrell, Executive Director of Minnesota Council for Minnesotans of African Heritage; and Dr. Brittany Lewis, the Founder and CEO of Research in Action, an urban research, strategy, and engagement firm, and Senior Research Associate at the University of Minnesota.

As we have reported, and as Minneapolis City Council members have recently discussed, organizers in the Twin Cities are calling for an abolition-minded framework to address the injustices of the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD), rather than implementing incremental reform, which, as history has taught us, is rarely effective. 

With this in mind, one listener asked the panel: As we continue to see the brutality of police, and the Minneapolis police department continues to lose contracts, including [a contract with] Minneapolis Public Schools, we see people abolishing the system of the police that’s in place. What comes after police disband?

Dr. Lewis immediately noted that with these kinds of conversations, we need to be intentional about the steps we take towards a police free state, in order to ensure everyone’s safety in that process. 

“Don’t tell me what you want to dismantle,” added Turrell. “Tell me what you want to build and let’s design that.” Black people and other folks of color rarely have the opportunity to collectively create a new system, so it is important that the process be intentional and oriented towards public safety, rather than a new kind of policing.

Through his work with the Minnesota Council for Minnesotans of African Heritage, Turrell found himself in a room full of police officers. He asked them to close their eyes and envision what safety looks like. “What does safety smell like,” he asked. “What does it feel like?”

“What does safety smell like,” he asked the officers. “What does it feel like?”

Answers ranged from a playground to the smell of the waffles Turrell cooks for his family. No one mentioned a police officer.

There has to be a path to safety that is grounded in the body, and the body’s ability to imagine a new world, added Menakem. “This is a question of who are we and how do we want that thing to be expressed in the world,” Menakem said. “How do we tap into that which is already there?”

Turrell knew that slowing down and allowing officers to digest his question on a somatic level, something that is hard to do if you are appealing to people’s ideas of logic and reasoning, would be an effective entrance into the conversation. “He’s making them get into the body first. If he stayed in the head they would have rejected it,” Menakem said.

In Menakem’s own experience, he knows that it is natural to get defensive when questions are phrased in a certain way, and that defensiveness shuts down the imaginative part of the brain. 

Dr. Lewis also concurred that some are in a more privileged position to imagine than others. “Who has the time and space to reimagine a system they’re trapped within?” she wondered.

But at the end of the day, it is difficult to reimagine anything when you start with what you want to get rid of. To create a path towards public safety that is not co-opted by prisons and policing, we need to start by seriously exploring who the community is and what it needs.

Watch the full conversation here, or listen on June 5 when it is broadcast on MPR News.

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