Minneapolis, MN – October 22, 2020: Outside the 4th precinct in north Minneapolis, Edward M. waves a Black Lives Matter flag during a protest against police killings. About 100 people gathered outside the precinct the day Judge Peter Cahill dismissed one of nine charges brought against former officer Derek Chauvin in the killing of George Floyd in May. Credit: Ben Hovland | (c) 2020

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Latrell Snider has been knocking on doors in north Minneapolis to inform residents about neighborhood assemblies, the charter amendment, and the candidates seeking the DFL endorsement for the city council election in November. 

Most of his conversations revolve around policing. Snider is an associate organizer for Barbershops and Black Congregations Cooperative, a group that’s advocating for a new public safety department promised by the charter amendment. 

The city charter mandates the existence of the Minneapolis Police Department and what it looks like. Amending the charter is a key step in creating what activists call a reimagined public safety department. Minneapolis residents will be able to vote on the charter amendment in November.

The conversations Snider has when knocking on doors are not unlike the national conversation on racism and police: policing, as it currently exists, doesn’t guarantee safety for Black residents in Minneapolis’ Fifth Ward—let alone the country.

“They want to see the police be held accountable for their actions,” Snider said of north Minneapolis residents. “The system we have now isn’t working.”

At worst, a resident might tell Snider they don’t have enough time to talk. That rarely happens, but Snider said he’s even less likely to meet a pro-police resident of Ward 5. In the hundreds of doorfront conversations he and his team have had, Snider said the majority of people express support for defunding the police.

Results of the DFL caucus in Ward 5 suggest it’s not quite that clear cut. 

The Minneapolis DFL tallied votes for city council endorsements from more than 4,800 delegates on June 8. The process resulted in the party backing seven city council candidates throughout the city—but not in Ward 5. Two out of five candidates seeking the endorsement in Ward 5 made it to the final round of balloting during the caucus: incumbent Jeremiah Ellison and Victor Martinez, a pastor in north Minneapolis. With about 58 percent of the votes, Martinez was just four delegates short of winning the endorsement. He’s also been vocal about his support for an increased police presence in north Minneapolis.

Candidates Kristel Porter, Cathy Spann, and Suleiman Isse also sought the DFL endorsement. Elijah Norris-Holliday is running for the seat, as well.

The city’s first virtual endorsement convention faced its own criticisms about potential ballot fraud and technical difficulties, but according to the Minneapolis DFL, this year’s turnout was more than double that of the city’s last election in 2017. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, delegates attended the caucus in person to endorse a candidate. 

In 2017, the party endorsed Ellison. He received 39 percent of the votes during this year’s caucus. Ellison said he commends his opponent Martinez’s turnout during the caucus, but he added that 258 delegates don’t represent a population of 30,000 in north Minneapolis.

“The results are not a reflection of what the neighborhood is thinking and feeling,” Ellison said. “The caucus results are a reflection of who did the most leg work.”

Who’s represented in the Fifth Ward? And who’s running to represent them?

Minneapolis’ Fifth Ward consists of seven neighborhoods in the city’s north side: Harrison, Hawthorn, Near North, Sumner-Glenwood, and parts of Jordan, North Loop, and Willard-Hay. It’s an incredibly diverse part of the city. According to the local research agency Minnesota Compass, people of color makeup 77 percent of the Near North’s total population, for example. The Black population makes up 50 percent of the neighborhood’s population. Almost 44 percent of the residents in Near North make less than $35,000. 

In February, the Star Tribune reported a 36 percent increase in violent crime—homicides, robberies, and aggravated assaults like shootings and stabbings—in the Fifth Ward, according to police data. Concerns about crimes have left some residents in Ward 5 weary about calls to defund the police.

Martinez is a pastor at the New Generation Church in north Minneapolis. He’s calling for more police officers in the area to address violent crime.

“Crime is sneaking into our backyard. Some of the wealthiest parts of north are now experiencing crime like other parts of north,” Martinez said. “It’s getting louder against the defunders and the abolishers.”

Martinez said he and his brother stopped two men who were shooting at the church during a recent funeral. 

“When we stopped the shooting, we called 911 and it took almost a minute for them to pick up. That’s crazy,” Martinez said. “We need more police presence on these streets. Once they leave, the peace leaves with them.”

Martinez isn’t the only candidate running for the Ward 5 seat who’s against defunding the police.

Kristel Porter said she’s not opposed to getting more cops in north Minneapolis, but she’s still calling for reform to hold the police accountable

Porter also said that she feels Martinez is simply taking advantage of residents’ fear of increased crime.

“When you have somebody going, defund the police, over on one side, and then you’ve got somebody that’s like, we love the cops, on the other side,” Porter said, “when people are in fear they’re going to go on the side of the person that says, let’s get more cops on the street.”

Porter said that the average north Minneapolis resident doesn’t fall in either category, and just wants to be safe.

She said that she might support moving funds from the police to mental health services and education in the future. But the police are a safety net for people affected by a lack of funding for both of those programs. Defunding the police would exacerbate those effects.

Cathy Spann is also running for the seat, and said on her campaign website that she supports working with the Minneapolis Police Department to address crime in the city while addressing racism. Spann has also been calling for more police protection.

She was part of a group that sued the city of Minneapolis in October for not disclosing how many officers are deployed in north Minneapolis and if staffing meets minimum requirements mandated by the city charter. 

Spann was not available to comment before publication.

Ellison, on the other hand, was one of five council members who authored the Minneapolis City Council’s version of a charter amendment. That version is similar to the charter amendment activists like Snider support.

On his campaign website, Ellison says public safety should go beyond a police-only model. He promises a dedicated mental health response and city-wide violence prevention strategies.

For Ellison, it’s not an argument about defunding the police—it’s about investing in safety. He said it’s obvious to residents that something needs to change. 

“Folks on the northside are forced to live within a certain contradiction,” Ellison said. “People are experiencing real danger in their communities—and they also view the police as a consistent source of danger.”

Ellison added that his opponents are acting like that contradiction doesn’t exist. Instead, he said they’re perpetuating a false dichotomy: “You either get violent policing and safety—which has never been true in north Minneapolis—or you hold the police accountable and you get violence in your neighborhood. That’s a false choice.”

Upcoming elections

Minneapolis residents will get the chance to vote for city council members, as well as the city’s mayor on November 2. But they will also see the charter amendment on their ballots.

Yes 4 Minneapolis is a coalition advocating for the charter amendment. About 22,000 voters signed a petition supporting the inclusion of the charter amendment on the ballot in November. 

The City Council has until July 6 to set the language for the amendment, and Yes 4 Minneapolis says it is confident its version will be chosen. 

“Our campaign goes beyond superficial reforms and addresses the root of our broken system,” said Corenia Smith, campaign manager for Yes 4 Minneapolis, in a statement. “Our ballot language is informed by thousands of community conversations and input from legal and policy experts. In creating an integrated Department of Public Safety, we can optimize experts and strategies to better serve residents regardless of their income, neighborhood, or the color of their skin.”

To rally support for the charter amendment, Snider continues to knock on doors every day throughout north Minneapolis with 22 other organizers with the Barbershops and Black Congregation Cooperative.

Snider sees candidates who don’t support a new public safety department as a distraction. To Snider, they just want to maintain the status quo. He said that voters in Ward 5 think differently.

“This charter amendment is the best chance that we have of seeing the changes that we want to see—and it’s time for a change.”

Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.