Abolishing MPD Isn’t As Radical As It Sounds

Abolishing the Minneapolis Police Department isn’t as radical as it sounds to most people. If you’re like many Twin Cities residents, you may be thinking “alright, it’s obvious the system is rigged. MPD has a history of abuse that isn’t ending with continued protests and attention.” Perhaps you recognize that, with the overwhelming power of the Minneapolis Police Union over accountability in the MPD and over 70% of officers voting for Bob Kroll, a man with over a dozen complaints of police brutality on his file, the violence and toxicity in MPD is very deeply rooted. “But abolishing the police? That’s absurd! Who is going to keep us safe? Who will investigate crimes?”

Reliable research shows inequality and poverty drive crime around the world. Minneapolis, despite dropping crime rates, is at the forefront of racial income inequality in the country. The police play a big role in that, but how we choose to direct our tax dollars should not be forgotten. Despite rolling back the drug war in a city with reasonably progressive social welfare measures, we have a steady stream of reports of police abuse in communities of color, a robust school-to-prison pipeline, thousands of homeless residents, additional tens of thousands who can’t access reliable mental health treatment, education or upwardly mobile employment options, and onward marching gentrification.

An underlying thread of the protests is that lower-income communities in Minneapolis, especially communities of color, have neither the political or economic representation to protect their communities from encroachment by police or from the development of new housing, “affordable” only by legal fiction at 60-70% of the massively inflated market rate. Minneapolis, in its recent push to make housing more affordable and plentiful, has put some money into affordable housing—but this money overwhelmingly goes to developers responding to subsidies and market forces, not the communities that suffer from unequal new development. This process of racially tinted economic development causes lasting damage, as vibrant and diverse working-class communities are split apart and residents are forced out of historic neighborhoods by rising prices and tides of well-intended young white people, bringing new and more expensive grocery and shopping options—while the neighborhoods’ former residents are forced to find new housing in increasingly concentrated pockets of poverty throughout the metro.

And the long and stark history of racial inequity in development in Minnesota can be traced in the lines of freeways, and our city’s shameful, nearly-a-century-old segregation efforts dating to the 1920s and 30s. These segregation efforts are recorded in racial covenants that remain in our property titles. Even Jewish developers in our own community, not long after fighting to have Jews exempted from racial covenants, included clauses in new buildings’ titles like this one: “shall not at any time be conveyed, mortgaged or leased to any person or persons of Chinese, Japanese, Moorish, Turkish, Negro, Mongolian or African blood or descent.”

My drive to understand and heal these historical wounds is directly tied to my Judaism and desire to build a better world. I’m writing this in the hopes that some fellow liberal Jews will agree to push our city to reckon with this history. As our community has been so successful achieving prosperity in the face of anti-Semitism and engaging in mutual aid, I’m asking that we consider some of the same tactics to envision a true alternative to the police.

Those of us who live or spend time in well-to-do suburbs will note that our interactions with police tend to be fewer and further between, and enforcement practices tend to be laxer. City ordinances are often enforced with warnings and patient explanations or fines; we aren’t likely to experience no-knock police raids or to see a neighbor being arrested with excessive force. This isn’t just because criminals don’t live in the suburbs; it’s because an aggressive police force doesn’t have to be a given in day-to-day life. In cities like Minneapolis and other cities across the country, we have spent decades defunding public health and education, spending less in lower-income communities and communities of color, and letting people without their own social safety nets end up in the crosshairs of a punitive and exploitative prison system.

Vibrant, interconnected communities that care for their residents have much less need of enforcement. Minneapolis (and the US in general) have the ability, and in my opinion, obligation, to spend on community health, support people struggling under COVID-19, and give gentrifying communities the power to develop their communities on their own terms. This is a small step towards righting some of the deep-rooted wrongs of our history, and taking the $193,000,000 Minneapolis spends on its police every year, and taking the time to figure out how those resources can be used to invest in our neighbors to reduce crime and build resiliency and equity in our community could make lasting, serious changes for the better.

At a societal scale, maybe if a portion of the $434 billion that went into the pockets of American billionaires the past 3 months had gone to safely housing and feeding our communities in a mass mobilization in response to Coronavirus, these protests would be looking different (or maybe wouldn’t need to happen at all). Maybe if we as a society decide to make up for the massive generational racial wealth gap through reparatory grants and subsidized home and business loans to the BiPOC communities that have suffered from generations of redlining and jim-crow descended policies, we might be in a position where dismantling the institution of the police wasn’t necessary. Instead, we’ve got an unemployment rate higher than during the Great Depression, and mass mobilization of heavily armed men to occupy our communities and beat protesters into submission.

Even in the midst of that mobilization, Minneapolitans have been looking out for each other with the awareness that the MPD can’t be counted on to act in the community’s best interest. For all the propaganda saying police in Minneapolis were enforcing curfew primarily/only to deal with out-of-town white supremacist arsonists, the bulk of police action in Minneapolis has been suppressing protesters and residents with rubber bullets, teargas, and pepper spray. (I’ve spent a lot of time listening to scanners and watching protester friends and journalists’ live feeds, and for the amount of attention they are giving reports of armed men, the cops certainly appeared to care much more about dispersing large groups gathered with signs and purpose–yes, even after curfew on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights.)

Reports from the ground confirm that the most effective protection for community residences and minority-owned businesses have been by organized and coordinated community members watching out for each other, not the massive occupying presence.

I’ve seen white friends ask “what are these protests trying to accomplish?” while acknowledging and then immediately dismissing the demands for defunding MPD. I’m delighted to see a real serious conversation from many Minneapolitans about what a non-militarized, non-police community safety apparatus looks like, and what might replace MPD if we can change our attitude around the law from enforcement and white (property) supremacy to community-centered harm-reduction.

But arresting Derek Chauvin didn’t fix the problem, and even charging his three accomplices was a tiny step in dismantling the century and a half of violence, resource extraction, and economic & political oppression of Minnesota’s communities of color.

This needs to be answered with real reform, and that means things like civilian oversight of law officers, a real change in standards around criminal justice, including a completely new incarnation of MPD, largely disarmed and demilitarized, with local residents hired and trained as peace and de-escalation community safety reps. This new apparatus should be focused on community health, meeting people in crisis with financial and health resources, not jail time, and guided by the buy-in and direction of lower-income communities, not just community leaders and business owners.

Doing this effectively won’t be possible without an understanding of the white supremacist history of wealth extraction from communities of color in Minnesota and a willingness to start returning some of our vibrant economy’s wealth to Twin Cities’ residents of color who’s grandparents and parents unwillingly provided some of the seed money. Whether this is done through reparations or other means of community investment, making amends for the history will mean making sure that people who live in currently gentrifying communities have more than just protections, but ownership of and real local power and input in how Minneapolis invests in their neighborhoods.

Now that Minneapolis’ city council has pledged to eliminate and replace MPD with a new and revolutionary mechanism for public safety, it’s up to us to help imagine a safe, equitable society where we watch out for each other and where our economy works for everyone. We can’t settle for a solution that moves security and weaponry from the police into the hands of private security; we need a solution where investigation and enforcement of laws get less and less pressing as we have more non-violent, dignified ways to care for our neighbors who are struggling, and fewer and fewer neighbors who turn to crime in desperation.

This is not a set of demands from protestors, but my own observations as a white Minneapolis resident and student of history and social justice, with inspiration from great resources like MPD150, and racial covenants and some history from Mapping Prejudice. My intention is to get non-radical, largely white people in my circles thinking about what dismantling the system that leads to (at least) 1100 deaths by police per year, as well as many more deaths in custody, mass incarceration and countless instances of abuse, violence, and continued wealth extraction from communities of color through prison labor, poor mental health resources, lower-quality educational options, voting restrictions, gentrification, redlining, etc., etc., etc.

Real cultural reckoning and change mean thinking big. AND a world without MPD or even the concept of law “enforcement” is not really nearly as radical as people think. There are models for reducing crime drastically with no guns or “warrior mentality” training. But we need to stand with our protesting neighbors and not settle for platitudes. I beseech everyone who reads this to consider and repeat. “We don’t need police to keep our community safe. We can do better.”

David Ackos is a lifelong resident of the Twin Cities who writes on social justice and building a better world by taking lessons from the intersections of history, urban policy, housing, and transportation