JaNaé Bates, Director of Communications for Yes 4 Minneapolis, speaks at the kickoff event for the Yes 4 Minneapolis coalition. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

Activists, organizers, and volunteers working with the Yes 4 Minneapolis coalition have announced a new, more public phase in their campaign to restructure public safety in Minneapolis.

“We are really going to make this happen,” JaNaé Bates, director of communications for Yes 4 Minneapolis, said at a news conference Tuesday.  “Y’all, we have all of the tools we need to create the city that we need to thrive, not just survive. That is a beautiful thing.”

The coalition was formed early in October 2020, but shot into the public’s view six weeks later when the Open Society Policy Center gave it $500,000 to support its mission to amend the Minneapolis City Charter to remove the mandate for a police department. 

The coalition’s member organizations range from political (including Take Action Minnesota) to community (such as the Little Earth Residents Association). Its board chair is Kandace Montgomery, the director of member organization Black Visions Collective. Bates and Corenia Smith, the campaign manager, are leading the effort. Thirty-three organizations have signed onto the coalition, according to their website.

The press conference coincided with National Night Out, a nation-wide event in which neighborhoods hold block parties. Originally conceived as a way to foster community/police relations, the Minnesota Reformer reported that 90% of registered events in Minneapolis requested that police not come. Yes 4 Minneapolis used the opportunity to organize volunteers to have “conversations with your neighbors to talk to them about what we’re going to create together,” Bates said. 

On July 23, the Minneapolis City Council approved a ballot question that would rewrite the city’s charter to remove the requirement for a police department, replacing it with a Department of Public Safety. The ballot question originated in a petition that was submitted by Yes 4 Minneapolis after it collected the signatures of more than 14,000 registered voters who supported its inclusion. 

Now that they have ensured that their version of the amendment will appear on the November ballot, the work shifts to building enough support to pass it. 

“What’s beautiful about this particular campaign,” Bates told Sahan Journal after the event, “is that it is not a prescription of a whole series of things that the city has to do for the next six years.” Rather, the amendment allows Minneapolitans to shape public safety as they see fit, Bates explained.

Claudia Zavela, a member of Take Action and resident of the Loring Park neighborhood, spoke at the event. Yes 4 Minneapolis volunteers and staff have been holding a series of conversations with Minneapolis residents about what public safety “truly means,” she said. 

“What we’ve been hearing so far is ‘safety’ is eliminating helplessness. It’s making sure everyone has good food to eat and clean water to drink. It’s actually taking care of our loved ones with chemical dependencies. It’s making sure that people have the opportunity to look after their loved ones and identify problems before they spiral out of control,” Zavela said.

Members of SEIU Local 26 converse during a breakout session at the Yes 4 Minneapolis kickoff event on August 3, 2021.

This was echoed by another speaker, Frank McCrary III. McCrary is a Northside resident who works with Service Employees International Union Local 26 as a board member and steward. He said that public safety meant “dealing with mental health, dealing with homelessness, addiction, all these things that afflict us.”

The only significant division among the speakers was disagreement over a long-term vision of public safety. Some advocate abolition—the elimination of armed peace officers—while others have a more modest vision of reform. To them, the charter amendment is a way to dissolve an unsalvageable institution, the Minneapolis Police Department.

Black Visions Collective is one of the most influential of the coalition members. Its director is also the board president of Yes 4 Minneapolis, and its leadership advocated abolition for years before the murder of George Floyd sparked the current debate about public safety. 

A member of Black Visions Collective, Justin Toliver, spoke at the event. They stopped short of calling for the abolition of police, but said that “safety exists beyond policing.” The work of the coalition and its member organizations was a “continuation of radical black organizing, radical black strategy that has really gotten us to where we are today,” they said.

McCrary also stopped short of calling for abolition, but said the charter amendment would “make 911 the last resort, or not one at all.”

But while some speakers left the door open for eliminating armed officers, Kimberly Jones said calls to defund the police were a misstep, comparing them to a misspelled word that caused “a major disruption and a loss of focus.” Jones spoke at the event on behalf of the Barbershops and Black Congregation Cooperative, a group that operates within ISAIAH, a coalition member which organizes political action around faith-based issues.

“We need the police,” Jones said, “but we also need and want them to be held accountable to the community.” Jones cited public outcries about police violence going back to 1922. “I give this brief history of Minneapolis police only to point out the obvious fact that we are still plagued with a police force unwilling to hear our cry for change,” Jones said.

Bates said that the coalition is broad enough to accommodate many visions of public safety. ”There’s gonna be an entire process where the people of Minneapolis get to wrestle together about what that looks like, but they actually get to do it. They are not confined or beholden to what the Police Federation put in place,” she said, referencing an allegation that the Minneapolis Police Federal wielded undue influence in past years over language in the charter that requires police.

But for now, Bates said there is acceptance by the coalition that armed police are not going anywhere soon. “Some folks here are like, ‘No, we need police, we want them, we want them to work in partnership and consortium with all of these other professionals and experts,’” she said, adding, “Quite frankly, where the city is, and the ways things are set up right now, that will be the first iteration of what happens when the charter is changed.”

In the coming weeks and months, the coalition will embark on a campaign of conversation and outreach to Minneapolitans, to push back on what Bates called the opposition’s “fear-based messaging.”

“The more and more that we talk to folks, more and more folks are getting excited, and the more and more they’re talking to their neighbors,” Bates said.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify leadership responsibilities within the Yes 4 Minneapolis coalition.

Logan Carroll is a journalist who reports on Minnesota's right-wing media ecosystem and other stories. Follow him on Twitter, @Unbalanced_MN.