These excerpts come from the book “Sparked: George Floyd, Racism, and the Progressive Illusion,” published in May 2021 by Minnesota Historical Society Press, edited by Walter R. Jacobs, Wendy Thompson Taiwo, and Amy August. Purchase copy here.
Erin Sharkey, teacher at Metropolitan State University and cofounder of Free Black Dirt
I teach creative writing in Minnesota prisons and an ethnic studies course on race and mass incarceration at a local university. The ethnic studies course is designed to begin with the Thirteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery excerpt a punishment for those convicted of a crime, and it ends with a debate about justice reform and the contemporary abolition movement. In this class, one of the first things I ask students to consider is what makes someone a criminal. Then I ask whether they think of themselves as criminals. Often students are shocked to be asked this question, though many admit to having broken the law in some way, like speeding, shoplifting, or drinking while underage. This exercise is designed to have them reflect on how they imagine themselves, which I then challenge by suggesting that maybe crime is a sign of society’s failure to provide for its people and satisfy unmet needs or deal with conflict before it escalates, rather than evidence of simple personal moral failure.
Sharkey writes of the 430 speakers registered to speak as the Minneapolis City Council held a seven-hour long public meeting and hearing in December 2020 as part of the city council budget process.
“… one side arguing for the mayor’s proposed budget (which featured a modest cut of 7.4 percent — $8 million — to MPD’s budget). This group provided evidence of what they described as rampant crime, unsafe conditions, and lawlessness. The opposing group argued for what they called the People’s Budget, created by the organizers behind the Defund the Police campaign. This group proposed a larger cut, taking $53 million from the police budget and allocating it to address issues like homelessness and to direct funds to services like a mobile mental health response team.
Rose M. Brewer, activist scholar at the University of Minnesota
“I was struck by the fact that a Cup Foods employee had called the Minneapolis police because they believed George Floyd passed a fake $20 bill. The high level of Black poverty in Minneapolis rippled through my brain. […] Black workers have continually been excluded from well-paid construction, electrical, unionized, and professional work. […] When the 1967 Black uprising occurred on Plymouth Avenue on the north side of Minneapolis in the heat of summer, those involved in the uprising expressed ills similar to those at the hart of the current protests. […] Little Black wealth is being built in the Twin Cities. Black homeowners were especially hard hit in the 2007-08 recession, particularly from predatory lending practices by banks such as Wells Fargo. In Minneapolis, the Black homeownership rate is 29 percent, one of the lowest in the nation; white homeownership in Minneapolis is 75 percent. […] The call to defund the police is embedded in this history, in a theory and practice of change. The core idea is to invest in human needs — education, living wages, health care — germinating the seeds of a society without police. The idea is rooted in community safety defined as an ethic of care. This idea is foundational to Black feminist thought. […] The Black queer radical feminist intervention asserts that systems of inequality are deeply connected with one another.”
by Amber Joy Powell, Ph.D. candidate at the University of Minnesota
“Living in Minnesota turned me into an abolitionist. This transition toward abolition wasn’t a quick one. […] As a sexual assault victim advocate and court observer, I witnessed firsthand how the system often revictimizes Black survivors. Still, even with all these explicit signs of system failure rooted in part in anti-Black racism and criminalization, I couldn’t fathom a world without police jails, or prisons. How else would we hold people accountable for the harm they caused?
“When I moved to St. Paul in the summer of 2015 as a Ph.D. student in sociology, I understood the criminal legal systems’ failures through a reformist lens. Perhaps what we needed was more training, more awareness, more Black people working in the system to change disparities from within and improve Black lives. Yet, over the course of my next five years in Minnesota, I watched as these proposed policing reforms continuously failed Black communities. With each police killing, I became more convince that the political reforms put in place to ‘protect’ communities of color did little (if anything) to dismantle the harsh realities of criminalization, racism, sexism, and socioeconomic vulnerabilities. By the time I left Minneapolis at the height of the George Floyd protests, I realized that reforms simply could not redress years of racial trauma for Black Minnesotans. Over five years, my encounters with Minnesota police, my experiences as an advocate for those experiencing gender-based violence, and my participation in policing research transformed my understanding of what Black communities need to feel safe in Minneapolis.
Powell writes about what she learned from residents of north Minneapolis about policing, reform efforts that were already in place in the background that had not achieved the desired results, and how limited the options are for Black women who do not want to call police during domestic disputes for fear of having their partner killed rather than de-escalated. She also details the case of when police did, in fact, de-escalate a domestic dispute nearby.
“Our fight against police violence has always included the broader struggle to build safe communities. When we demand accountability and say ‘Black Lives Matter,’ we are reaffirming the desire to build safe communities for Black people to live in. Yet, if the main institution responsible for public safety (i.e., the police) criminalizes, abuses, and in the most egregious cases kills members of the communities it vows to protect, those same communities become cynical and maintain their distrust of an institution whose very history began with Black subjugation. Our fight to end police violence is always connected to the desire to address crime and build safe communities more broadly. As an abolitionist, I echo the voices of many organizers and activists who believe that one way forward is to equip ourselves with the tools needed to both prevent and respond to community and interpersonal violence. There seems to be a general recognition that the system has failed us, yet many remain reluctant to embrace an ideology like abolition that they see as jeopardizing public safety, Moving forward, abolitionist calls toward defunding police, decarceration, abolishing cash bail, and other political efforts must be rooted in community engagement that also seeks to build alternatives for Black residents’ public safety.”