For 18 days in 2015 the community occupied the Minneapolis Police Department’s Fourth Precinct in North Minneapolis. For 18 days the community came together to demand justice for Jamar Clark, and an end to police brutality in general. During those 18 days, the community defied commonly held beliefs about the necessity for police.
Hundreds of people packed Plymouth Avenue in front of the precinct. There was no shortage of raw emotion. Yet, the only violence of note was the occupation being attacked by white supremacists. Through an organized network, the community pooled resources to provide food, shelter, warmth and some medical care among many other needs for those who were there. The atmosphere and overwhelming sense at the occupation was one of support and community. Community organizer, activist and artist Keno Evol, who was at the occupation for a majority of the time, talked about this dynamic: “folks respected each other… not only that… folks cared for each other. Folks gave away their gloves. Things like that.”
Cameron Clark, an activist and Jamar Clark’s cousin, also spoke to the community’s ability to take care of itself.
“It was people coming together, the community coming together,” he said. Clark, one of five people shot by mask-wearing white supremacists on Nov. 23, 2015, relied on that community. “The cops weren’t protecting us. They didn’t even respond when I got shot. So we got together and we said ‘ok no masks anymore.’ Didn’t matter what race you were, you couldn’t have a mask on. That was it,” he recalled. He talked about the system of security and accountability they set up “It was just concerned brothers saying look we ain’t having none of that here.”
Contrary to the myth where the police play the role of containing the uncivilized and immoral element of society – as Sarah Huckabee Sanders just blamed the violence in Chicago on the residents’ morality – the Fourth Precinct occupation showed just how capable the community is of taking care of itself, and, equally important, just how much of a threat the police pose to that ability. Clark hit on this when I asked him about the need for the police.
“We don’t need them.” he said. “They’re the biggest gang. They just sit on Plymouth staring at us. Is this what they get paid for?”
To protect and serve?
What do we expect the police to do? You might say to solve crimes. You might say to protect the community. You might say to help wherever needed. Your answer may be different than your neighbors, or it may be more platitude than substantive such as “to protect and serve.”
Tony Williams, local organizer and artist who has worked on setting up community alternatives to the police, pointed out the inherent problem with modern policing. By and large, they are a white-male dominated force, being sent out to cover issues from domestic abuse to mental health crises to violent crime amid communities with which they do not personally identify
“They are not equipped for what we are asking them to do. On the mental health tip, if a Black mother of three is having a mental health crisis it doesn’t make sense to have a white dude from the suburbs with a gun respond. He’s not equipped with the right training or the right context.” Williams continued, “If the job of the police is public safety there are a lot of things that address that. Job trainings centers, rec centers, those are public safety. Community organizations are more effective.”
When police are so ubiquitous – through state funding and political power – in the kinds of services they provide, there is less opportunity for alternatives to police-led solutions and services, and for communities to organize solutions that are the best fit for them. Justin Terrell is an organizer with Take Action Minnesota focusing on criminal justice. He pointed out that in order for the community to be empowered and meet its own needs outside of the institution of police, “for every dollar you spend on police training spend two on community services.”
Williams echoed Terrell’s commitment to empowering the community. We already rely on alternatives to police to meet needs, Williams said, especially with programs like Community Outreach for Psychiatric Emergencies (COPE) which focuses on providing emergency mental health services for adults in Hennepin County. There are also nonprofits like Streetworks, which provides much needed supplies and connections to services to homeless youth. Known for their iconic green bags full of toiletries, clean clothing or service pamphlets, Streetworks takes their outreach to the streets in order to help youth with what they need, rather than relying on or being harassed by law enforcement.
There are obstacles, as Williams sees them, to COPE and similar organizations fully replacing police, one being lack of visibility.
“You have to call them directly. You can’t get routed there from 911 so the only people that call COPE are people that know about COPE,” he said. “We need to innovate. We need a bunch of ways to deal with situations that don’t involve the police” says Williams.
Minneapolis isn’t the only city having these conversations. In Baltimore, the city health department’s Safe Streets initiative hires ex-offenders to mediate conflict before it erupts into violence – separate from police. In Chicago, a community training program called Ujimaa Medics teaches residents emergency first aid, specifically for gunshot wounds.
In addition to the more independent initiatives, cities across the country are being pushed to fund alternative programs often called Community-Oriented Policing Services (COPS), a U.S. Department of Justice-sponsored grant program and policing philosophy that encourages building ties and working closely with members of communities. These programs vary greatly in their implementation making it difficult to assess their effectiveness, with some research pointing out a tendency to adopt the language among police departments nationwide but with few adopting the core strategies of the program. The U.S. Department of Justice describes these programs as, “Rather than responding to crime only after it occurs, community policing encourages agencies to proactively develop solutions to the immediate underlying conditions contributing to public safety problems.”
Community policing is not a new concept. During the height of the 1960s Black Liberation Movement, organizations like the Black Panther Party understood the need to create programs that would benefit the community in order to foster trust and autonomy. The Panthers set up mediation services, child care, tutoring and education services, as well as their breakfast program which eventually got co-opted into the federal welfare system. Most famously, and often misrepresented, the Panthers’ community services provided safety and policing that was independent from the state and designed to meet the needs of the Black community.
As Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party, famously said, “The task is to transform society; only the people can do that, not heroes, not celebrities, not stars.”
Policing rooted in a problematic history
For many, Williams said, the underlying conditions for public safety problems are the same conditions responsible for the police being incapable of protecting and serving their communities, especially communities of color.
“Cops were created as slave patrols to keep communities of color in check. So asking them to protect and serve is antithetical to what they are suppose to do,” Williams pointed out.
Policing not only has its roots in the overseers and bounty hunters of the slave trade, but also the posses and soldiers that carried out genocide against Native Americans. That means the modern-day institution of policing is built on a foundation of law enforcement meant to control, dominate and even exterminate non-white people. For some, this white supremacist origin alone is enough to encourage a reimagining – if not a reformation or abolition – of police.
“Every single iteration of policing that we’ve seen has the outcomes of serving the interests of whiteness,” said Jamie Utt, a Minneapolis-based racial justice organizer and educator who is pursuing his doctorate at the University of Arizona.
With that in mind Utt continues to provide a hugely important frame from understanding those underlying conditions: “Police function as agents of hegemonic whiteness. It’s about more than racism, it’s about the maintenance of whiteness which racism is a tool of.”
When we understand the police in terms of their relationship to whiteness it becomes more clear why programs like COPS see wildly varying results: when they are effective their orientation to power (whiteness) shifts. When they are not successful it is because they are still invested in serving power (whiteness). As Utt pointed out, “Why is it that the exact same critiques of whiteness were made by Du Bois, Baldwin, Davis all the way to 2016 and 2017. Racial attitudes have changed in 100 years, but outcomes haven’t. That tells you it’s not about racial attitudes, it’s about serving the interests of something bigger, of whiteness.”
No simple solutions
“They don’t know us. They don’t know our names. They don’t protect and serve they just want to control,” Clark said.
The frustration in Clark’s voice is palpable as he continued, “Nothing is changing. They ain’t whipping us no more. Now they shoot us.” Clark had the kind of matter-of-fact-tone that makes your chest tighten up. Clark was quick to respond when I asked him what’s something that would help. “I think they should have to live in the neighborhood,” he said.
As of 2015 approximately 5.4 percent of Minneapolis police officers live within city limits, and about 22 percent in St. Paul. The idea of requiring police to live in the communities they serve is not a new one, in some cities in the country it is a requirement, and it is gaining popularity. However, in Minnesota a 1999 state statute prohibits cities from instituting a residency requirement for their police force. The bill’s sponsor, former state representative and current Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek, argued argued that residency requirements hurt Minneapolis’ policing quality and infringed on police officers’ personal lives. In 2015, a proposal was made in the state Legislature to remove the ban, but it did not pass.
But a residency requirement alone alone won’t solve the problems with policing as Utt pointed out, “Injecting Black or Latinx or Indigenous folks into police forces doesn’t change the fundamental role of the police.”
On July 6, 2016, Philando Castile was killed by former St. Anthony Police officer Jeronimo Yanez, a Latino man, during a traffic stop that was captured via Facebook live stream. In a rare turn of events, Yanez was indicted for Castile’s death though the trial resulted in a non-conviction. Some might say that the indictment of a Latino officer is proof that the the justice system only protects whiteness as white officers are rarely charged in the deaths of unarmed Black people. However, Yanez’s non-conviction shows just how protected police officers are, despite any supposed racial hierarchy within the force. As long as they lawfully execute a white supremacist agenda.
Immediately following the acquittal Yanez, Dennis Ploussard, a juror in the case, told the Star Tribune the verdict was “very difficult,” but that ultimately “it came down to the law.” Ploussard is right, it does come down to the law, and the law is set up to protect and serve whiteness, the police are simply the first line in that protection. Williams was adamant about this point.
“The way the legal system has constructed the police’s right to kill is that if a reasonable officer would be scared they get to shoot, period,” he said. “As long as society keeps giving us a conditioned fear of Black men and police can shot when they are scared then police will continue to kill black men. Nothing can change that except a fundamental restructuring of public safety.”
This is what Utt means when he said, “Police function as agents of hegemonic whiteness.” This is the fundamental issue that we must grapple with if we are to ever figure out how to provide equitable policing. The answer, it seems from those who work in this area, is community empowerment and relationships. The question of our willingness to empower communities of color and poor communities remains to be answered. But, given all that has happened here in the Twin Cities around police violence, from Fong Lee to Philando Castile, and that, according to a study done by the Malcolm X Grassroots Organization, the police or their proxies kill a Black person once every 28 hours in this country, it’s a question that needs answering with utmost urgency.
Terrell would like to see effective community empowerment here in Minneapolis, “We need something where we can call somebody’s aunt or uncle instead of the police. If we see somebody acting out we have a network capable of holding them accountable.”
There are some steps in the right direction here in Minneapolis. The Collaborative Public Safety Strategies awarded $250,000 to the Broadway and Little Earth neighborhoods to use as they see fit in order to facilitate safety, and they are completely free from the police. Organizations submitted proposals, and the community voted to vote on which proposals should be funded. Efforts like this empower the community and demonstrate the lie that communities need police to be safe. The programs are still being finalized, with funding to be distributed this summer. While the effectiveness of these programs has yet to be determined, the initiative itself, which is run out of the mayor’s office, is a sign that the community is ready and willing to take over.
“We already have these alternatives, they just aren’t pulled together in a community safety network… and that’s the work we have in front of us. We have to legitimize and fund them to do this work,” Williams said.
The Minneapolis Police Department did not respond to requests for comment for this story.