A Hennepin County Sheriff looks out at protesters gathered in front of the Brooklyn Center Police Department on April 14, 2021. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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After the murder of Daunte Wright, I stood in front of a fortified Brooklyn Center Police Department with my colleagues from the Senate People of Color and Indigenous (POCI) caucus and a number of allies. We showed up with a simple and reasonable demand: Considering the lack of meaningful action since the murder of George Floyd, we need to address the issue of police accountability independent of normal Senate business. That is, rather than leave reform as one of the last items to be debated and traded behind closed doors as part of budget negotiations, the Senate should hold public hearings on these policy proposals and bring them to the floor for a vote.

At the time, it looked like we might have broken through the established order of business. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka hosted a press conference in April during which he promised to host fact-finding hearings on the issue of police brutality. Days later, he walked it back and ultimately decided against anything beyond holding a conference committee to pass a Judiciary and Public Safety omnibus bill. 

Passing a budget is our constitutional obligation. This moment demands greater action than that. 

Now, I am waiting alongside every other Minnesotan who cares about Black and brown lives for sound bites to trickle out of negotiations taking place under the cone of silence.

The budget should be debated and passed publicly, giving residents, community leaders, activists, and all 67 Senators the opportunity to weigh in. What’s happening now is much different: Small working groups of just a handful of members from the House and Senate are hashing out the details of a budget behind closed doors and without input from members of the public or the rest of the Legislature. Without public input, Republicans are insulated from backlash for pushing unpopular policies that are not supported by a majority of Minnesotans. 

Voters remain in the dark about police accountability—and so do most legislators 

The people of south Minneapolis and racial-justice advocates across Minnesota have fought tirelessly for a short list of reasonable proposals that would hold police accountable. These activists have no idea what will come of their work or whether the legislation they’ve fought for will be horse-traded for something else. 

This is a hard pill to swallow, given that Minnesotans overwhelmingly support these bills. Some are even supported by the top law enforcement organizations in our state. The closed-doors approach to budget negotiations has wrongfully prevented Minnesotans from having the opportunity to weigh in on the issues that are directly impacting our community.

The truth is that when all of the most consequential government business is done in secret, it shields politicians from public scrutiny. It makes it easier to strike deals that reinforce the status quo instead of moving Minnesota forward. If we do not know what is being said behind closed doors, the people lose their power to hold their elected officials accountable at the ballot box.

I represent south Minneapolis, one of the areas hit hardest by COVID-19 and the most affected by ongoing civil unrest. I have received countless emails every day demanding police accountability. I don’t know what to tell my constituents, because neither myself nor my colleagues in the Senate POCI caucus are in the room where these deals are being negotiated. Despite being elected to represent many of the communities most impacted by this legislation, none of us will have an opportunity to voice our support or opposition to the final omnibus package on public safety until a deal has been reached and it’s too late to alter or amend it.

We have a basic duty as legislators to protect Black and brown Minnesotans from continuing to be targeted, terrorized, and killed by the police. A lot needs to change before the BIPOC community can begin to trust our state government—not only in terms of policy, but also when it comes to the political process. Restoring transparency and inclusion will not solve the issue of trust, but it’s an important start.

This system is not functioning for the people, and the current order of business is leading to worse outcomes for Minnesotans across a range of issues, including health, wealth, public safety, education, and economic mobility. Our popularly supported agenda is being negotiated against the GOP’s right-wing agenda. Minnesotans aren’t able to raise their voices in opposition to the Republican blockade of the most important police reform and accountability measures because it’s all happening behind closed doors, where the public cannot participate.  

If we want to be a government by the people and for the people, it’s time to shed light on the work we are doing and invite the people back into the process.

Omar Fateh

Omar Fateh is a Minnesota senator representing south Minneapolis (Senate District 62) in the Minnesota Senate. As one of only two Black senators, he is a leader on issues of racial justice and public-safety...