Guest column: A look at what went wrong in Minneapolis as trial begins for Derek Chauvin

Editor's note: This guest column was submitted by Andres Boland. Andres, a former writer for RTF's previous iteration, The People's View, is a Minnesota native and excels in issues of national importance with a local focus. 

George Floyd

Today, former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin and his three accomplices go on trial for murdering George Floyd.

Truth be told, I am not confident that Chauvin and his accomplices will face justice. The last time that a cop was tried for killing a black man unjustly, Jeronimo Yanez killing Philando Castille, he was found not guilty. 60-40 in Chauvin’s favor.

But in the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Everyone who was responsible for ensuring Minneapolis did not burn at the local level failed. It's only a question of how badly.

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey

The bulk of Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey’s mistakes were made immediately after George Floyd’s murder. He should have gone out to meet with protesters directly while things were raw but before Minneapolis began to burn. Mayor Frey failed to do this. When he eventually did meet with protesters at his home, Minneapolis, especially it's Black residents, had already endured several exhausting days of looting, arson, and the Minneapolis Police Department doing everything they could to make the situation worse. Needless to say, when he told a traumatized and angry crowd that he did not favor defunding the MPD despite everything that happened, he was booed and the crowd shouted “shame!” at him.

Mayor Frey showed neither strength nor compassion, the worst possible combination in a social crisis. As a result, when a curfew was ordered, many Minneapolis residents disobeyed the order and continued to protest. By contrast, despite Saint Paul, in particular the Midway neighborhood, getting hit by the civil unrest after George Floyd’s murder, residents respected Saint Paul Mayor Melvin Carter’s authority during the curfew.

But at least Mayor Frey appears to acknowledge reality somewhat.

The Weak Mayor System

Before I explain what went wrong in other areas, I should explain how the Minneapolis City Government is set up.

Minneapolis operates under a system called the Weak Mayor system. This means that the City Council holds the bulk of the power in the Mayor-Council relationship. The Council under this system approves not only budgets and new ordinances, but controls appointments and in fact does much of the work of running the city.

A Weak Mayor system can work for a small town or a suburb perhaps, but it is wholefully inadequate for a major city like Minneapolis, a city of close to 500,000 people and growing. This is because the Minneapolis City Council is being asked to do the work of an executive branch on top of a legislative branch. Making the situation worse is that the Council is frequently quite divided, meaning it is difficult to tackle long term problems and city staff frequently get conflicting directives depending on which city council member they have to answer to. One colleague said it is difficult to know who is in charge of what under this system.

It is a many headed monster that never will nor can steer to the same point.

The Minneapolis City Council

The Minneapolis City Council made some outright irresponsible decisions after George Floyd’s murder.

They first said they were going to abolish the Minneapolis Police Department, despite at the time having no idea what that would actually entail. When pressed about this, several council members said that they would turn to the community for conversations. While it is a good idea to talk to your constituents about how they feel about policies, asking them to come up with a detailed policy plan, especially while they are recovering from witnessing the police murder one of their neighbors is lazy at best and an abdication of duty at worst.

Moreover, how are people supposed to comment on a plan that is not there?

This bears repeating, a majority of the Minneapolis City Council announced that they would support disbanding a department with well over 750 officers (along with a sizable civilian staff) and an over 150 million dollar budget without agreeing on what it actually meant.

Special dishonor goes to Council President Lisa Bender for making promises the Council had no way of keeping.

The results were tragic but utterly predictable. Violent crime, especially carjackings, began to rise rapidly in Minneapolis, putting the very idea of police reform in jeopardy in a region that urgently needs it. What is more, the plan itself fell apart when it came time to figure out how to execute it.

Defunding or abolishing a police department is like withdrawing from a brushfire war. If you do it without planning, you will make the situation worse.

As a side note, the Minneapolis City Council is proof that the far left is incapable of actually governing.

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman

Out of every local elected official in Minneapolis, no one bears more responsibility for the current mess than Mike Freeman, the Hennepin County Attorney.

Thanks to serious miscommunications (if I am being generous), his poor history with quite a few communities of color in Minneapolis, and how slow he was to communicate in a delicate situation, he provided much of the immediate fuel for the unrest. This does not include how sloppy he has been.

The fact that he had to be removed from the case speaks volumes of how badly he has performed.

His leadership during this time has been so bad that according to a confidential source, his own staff want him to step down. Morale in the Hennepin County Attorney’s office crashed after George Floyd’s murder.

Fortunately, it looks like Freeman can read the writing on the wall according to the source above, and the current term will be his last.

The Minneapolis Police Department

Out of all the major actors in Minneapolis, no one bears more responsibility for George Floyd’s murder than the Minneapolis Police Department. Derek Chauvin, a now fired Minneapolis Police Officer, murdered George Floyd by pressing his knee against George Floyd while he kept saying “I can’t breathe.” He had three other accomplices in this atrocity. Tou Thao guarded Chauvin while he commited murder, while J Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane aided. All four may be off the force but the culture that permitted someone like Chauvin to operate for so long is still well entrenched.

Even by the standards of American law enforcement, the MPD has a well earned reputation for racism, corruption, and using excessive force. What is worse, they have quite a low clearance rate for solving major crimes, espically sexual assault and crimes when the victims are Black.

Right after George Floyd’s murder, the MPD went out of their way to make the situation worse. The day after the murder, I dropped off a legal observer at the protest at 38th and Chicago. I stayed around a bit to observe what was going on around me. The protest was calm and controlled. Everyone was wearing a mask, bottled water was easily available, as was hand sanitizer. There was even pizza.

Because I was overheated and feeling useless, I left after about an hour. Good thing I left because the MPD went in with tear gas and rubber bullets a few hours later despite how calm the situation was.

The MPD provoked a riot they could not or would not control. Personally, I don’t see much of a difference between intentionally provoking the unrest or doing it by accident. Both conclusions are quite damning in their own ways. During the unrest, they tear gassed people who were on their front porches and arrested a (Black) journalist working for CNN.

Overall, the MPD handled the situation so badly that nearby police departments and the Minnesota National Guard had to be sent in just to get the situation under control.

What Next?

Ultimately, besides the above mentioned actors, the bulk of the responsibility lies with Institutionalized White supremacy, both in the Twin Cities and across America. The assumption that People of Color are automatically more of a threat than White people simply because of their racial or ethnic background, not the content of their character or what they have done. Former Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges explains further here how my fellow White liberals have more often than not made things worse here.

As for the MPD itself, I am not sure that it can be reformed in its current state. But at the same time, Minneapolis must be able to police itself.

I would propose doing what Northern Ireland did with the Royal Irish Constabulary as part of the Good Friday agreement. The short version is to fire every single officer, rehire the good (or at least acceptable ones) and ensure that the local community is reflected in the police force. The reason this example is relevant is because while the skin color may be the same, Ireland has had some brutal sectarian conflicts based on ethnicity and religion that still leave deep scars, not to mention centuries of oppression by the English.

It is nowhere near the same as racism in the United States, but it is a helpful example nonetheless.

A society needs ways to enforce the rules, protect people from internal threats, and punish those who break said rules.

That is why figuring how to do public safety is so important.

Stay frosty everyone.

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