On 2 November, Minneapolis residents voted 56.2-43.8% to reject a relatively moderate version of the idea of "ending the Minneapolis Police Department and creating a new transformative model for cultivating safety in our city”, as the city council put it.
Minneapolis, where George Floyd was murdered and a new surge of Black Lives Matter protests began in May last year, has been at the centre of US debates about the police. Longstanding local campaigns have gained new support and momentum since Floyd’s killing. Later in 2020 the city’s council began a process aiming to transform the city's public-safety provision.
Momentum for reforms has stalled, and perhaps in some respects reversed. At the end of September Democratic Party leaders in the US Senate declared that talks to put together an adequate majority for even minimal national legislative reforms had come to nothing.
As we’ve discussed previously in connection with laws to expand voting rights and bolster unions, non-budgetary measures require 60% to pass the Senate, due to the absurdly undemocratic “filibuster” rule.
Republican intransigence means that federal laws mandating even minor changes like restrictions on physical restraint will not happen any time soon. Republicans have aggressively opposed proposals to remove police officers’ “qualified immunity” (immunity from financial liability when sued for violation of constitutional rights in the course of duty, unless a specific law has been violated).
Joe Biden has used executive power to introduce some reforms, including limits on when federal officers can use chokeholds and “no-knock warrants”. That does not apply to local police departments, which employ the great majority of police.
Minneapolis is not the only recent setback for local police-reform activism. On 2 November also, Byron Brown, the incumbent mayor of New York state’s second city, Buffalo, running as a "write-in" candidate, defeated Democratic Socialists of America member India Walton, who had beaten him in the Democratic primary in June. Agitation against Walton’s plans to divert funds from policing to social provision and make the police more accountable seems to have been an important factor.
And on the same day, heavily Democratic and liberal Seattle narrowly elected a Republican city attorney (chief public prosecutor), Ann Davison, over self-described prison-and-police “abolitionist” Nicole Thomas-Kennedy. Thomas-Kennedy campaigned to halve the city’s police budget. Another high profile “abolitionist”, Nikkita Oliver, was defeated in the city council election. These trends suggest socialist Seattle councillor Kshama Sawant, subject to a big business-funded recall vote next month, is in danger.
There is big money and institutional support behind opposition to police reform measures. It is also true that since the Black Lives Matter protests died down, public support for change has died down too. In June 2020, shortly after George Floyd’s murder, 60% told pollsters they trusted “the Black Lives Matter movement”, against 56% for “law enforcement”. By March this year it was 50% for BLM and 69% for the cops.
Whereas black support for BLM, already a big majority, ticked up after Floyd’s death and then stayed roughly where it was, a plurality of white Americans said they supported the movement only very briefly – and then opposition rose sharply in the months that followed. There has been a right wing-driven backlash, feeding off hostility to anti-racist struggles but also concerns about crime and insecurity in the context of the pandemic.
Some local initiatives have made progress. Also on 2 November, Texas’ state capital, Austin, rejected by 68.9-31.2% a well-funded right-wing campaign to increase police numbers.
Interestingly opponents of the measure included unions representing firefighters and paramedics, concerned that more money for the police would mean less for services. US firefighters’ and their unions have traditionally been very close to the police and theirs.
Austin has made some of the biggest changes in the US, cutting almost a third from its 2019-20 police budget and reallocating the funding to community safety and social provision – including emergency medical services, community medics, mental health first responders, homelessness services, substance abuse programs, food access, victim support, abortion services and parks. The proportion of the city's "general fund" devoted to police spending has gone down from 40% to 26%.
As in many places, police unions have been at the core of the right-wing resistance to such measures. Before Austin's measures were even implemented, the Texas Municipal Police Association put billboards on the roads into the city with slogans including “Warning! Austin Police Defunded, Enter at Your Own Risk”.
Dozens of cities and towns across the US have reduced and redirected police spending to some degree, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Baltimore. Seattle, though its council backed away from an earlier pledge to cut 50%, did reduce spending by 18%.
Unlike Seattle, some cities have recently elected “progressive prosecutors”. The most prominent, Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner, easily won re-election two weeks ago, despite a drive by police unions to stop him. US socialists have criticised the election of such prosecutors as a political strategy, but their rise is indicative of a leftish trend.
As on many issues, the US is probably becoming more divided on the question of policing.
When a clear majority of Minneapolis’ council voted for changes to policing last year, the language was radical, and there were reports suggesting that the city police department would somehow be abolished. As we wrote last year: "To demand that the capitalist class abolish its own state machine makes no sense. On the other hand, the breakdown or withdrawal of parts of that machine in favour of expanded private security, or private vigilante groups, would not be a step forward.
"Immediately, we should fight for radical measures to curb police power, introduce stronger elements of accountability and democracy over them, expand public social provision and limit the spheres in which the police operate."
Amidst much unclarity, Minneapolis shifted 4.5% of its police budget to social spending, then this year it boosted police funding again.
The referendum measure defeated on 2 November would have removed the wording in the City Charter requiring a police department, with minimum funding levels and mayoral control. In its place it proposed a “Department of Public Safety” accountable to the mayor and the council – a body that “employs a comprehensive public health approach… which could include licensed peace officers (police officers), if necessary, to fulfill its responsibilities for public safety”.
What this would have meant if the measure had passed would no doubt have been the subject of many arguments and struggles.
There was heavy institutional opposition – from Minneapolis mayor Jacob Frey (who won re-election, defeating a more police-critical Democrat challenger); from prominent national Democrat politicians in the state; and from the leadership of Minneapolis PD itself, including its black chief, Medaria Arradondo.
Public opinion in the city seems to have divided in complicated ways, with some evidence suggesting black residents, while more critical of the police, were also more sceptical of talk about abolishing or “defunding” the police department. Age seems to have been a crucial divide. Young black people are more radical (and have been central to police reform campaigns in Minneapolis).
The reality driving demands for police reform has not changed much. According to mappingpoliceviolence.org, 1,217 people were killed by police in the US in 2020. So far this year it is 923. The numbers have stayed fairly constant for many years. Black people are 13% of the US population, but 26% of those killed this year.
It may be that it will take a revival of large-scale protests to shift things more rapidly. Let's hope that happens soon. A US court may be about to acquit a far right-sympathiser, Kyle Rittenhouse, who last August shot and killed two anti-racist protesters in Wisconsin.